Suppliers get set on the Longbridge block

Capital equipment suppliers are looking forward to £1.7bn worth of orders

News that BMW and the UK Government have struck a deal to save Longbridge has been welcomed in many quarters. As Rover workers celebrate, capital equipment suppliers are waking up to £1.7bn worth of opportunities to kit out Britain’s biggest factory.

The exact scope of Longbridge’s redevelopment remains uncertain. But pressure will be maintained on capital equipment suppliers to cut costs. In selling to the German-owned company, British suppliers vying with euro-zone rivals will continue to be hampered by the strength of sterling against the euro.

For some UK suppliers, these problems could be partly allayed by familiarity with the contract. Redevelopment plans for Longbridge were put on ice during discussions with BMW about the future.

`At some stage they came close to contracts being placed,’ said one industry insider. `People will now be dusting off their proposals and getting back into the competition. Clearly, they will all have to be sharpening their pencils on costs.’

Experts are betting on two likely developments at Longbridge. One concerns the paint shop, which governs two vital variables: the speed of the assembly line and the quality of the finish of the vehicles. So expect Longbridge’s existing paint-shop to be scrapped, making way for a water-based paint facility.

German manufacturer Durr and Redditch engineering group Haden MacLellan both look to be in the running for the new paint shop work. Durr built the paint shop for the Rover 75 at Cowley, and Haden MacLellan won the contract for Land Rover’s £110m plant at Solihull, which can handle up to 75 units an hour in each of its twin lines.

The second likely development will be to create an assembly line designed to have different model variants running on the same track, with computer systems controlling the order of material being supplied to the line, matching the sequence of the order book.

`Every car maker is striving to achieve this,’ said one software expert. `It reduces the amount of stock held and cuts the amount of time between an order being placed and Rover getting paid for it. So planning production is going to be the important aspect of this.’

BMW’s dissatisfaction with the Rover plant’s productivity should result in greater efforts in the design of the production line and the workstations of the assembler. Tecnomatix, the Israel-based software company whose Robcad software was used to design and simulate assembly operations for the Rover 75, believes there will be other areas where it will have an interest.

With BMW expected to give the green light to Longbridge’s development this week, factory suppliers are already on the starting blocks. The race to improve Longbridge’s productivity is about to begin.