The Rover’s return

A £290m investment in Oxford represents Rover’s determination to restore its troubled image with the production of the new 75 model, reports Patrick Murphy

The new 75 model has been the silver lining to the clouds gathered around Rover for the past nine months. Uncertainty over the Longbridge plant’s future and whether the European Commission will approve its parent BMW’s rescue package has coincided with the company losing money and market share.

So last month’s opening of Rover Oxford, the factory that will manufacture the 75, is an important milestone on the road to recovery.

Having done something of a `Sellafield’ on the site – it was previously known as Cowley – the company is keen to rebuild its image as a quality car maker. The planned transfer of 800 jobs from Longbridge and other plants is also good news.

BMW is spending £290m on the 79-year-old Oxford site. The investment includes a £75m body-in-white facility, which uses 170 robots; a £80m paint shop; a £50m trim and final assembly plant; a new vehicle preparation centre; and an integrated logistics centre (ILC). The site’s area has been halved from 90ha to 46ha.

The ILC, which covers 2.2ha of the site and supports the final assembly facility, cost £10m to build. It replaces five separate parts-storage areas, improving productivity and control and minimising the environmental impact of its operations. The centre was developed jointly with Exel Logistics to receive, configure and deliver correctly sequenced components to each of the 142 lineside assembly stations at the plant.

`The ILC handles 550,000 parts per day. It is a vital element of the Rover Oxford site,’ says Paul Chantry, body-in-white technology director.

The logistics centre is split into three areas. The first, occupying half the 236,800sq ft floor area, handles basic parts brought in from 150 suppliers worldwide. These are stored in their original containers in a consolidation area, organised according to where they are fitted on the assembly line.

The second is the sequencing area. Here, more complex parts are stored, including carpets, parcel trays, main harnesses, front struts and door casings. To minimise the amount of parts stored next to the assembly line, these items are distributed to the assembly area in the same sequence as the cars travelling down the line.

The third area is for late configuration components. These, including bumpers, facias, headliners and consoles, are not collected together until the build sequence is known. The build sequence is determined as little as 60 minutes before the components are needed on the line.

The logistics centre is separated from the assembly hall by a rail spur which provides a freight link from the factory to the Channel Tunnel. The two buildings are linked by a 100m tunnel passing under the railway, through which 27 electric tow trains pull trailers of components to the point where they are needed on the assembly line, then bring the empty containers back.

The increased control achieved through building the logistics centre next to the assembly area and by using the tow trains has cut the time taken for components to be delivered from parts storage to the assembly area from four hours to one. The reduced time has also allowed a reduction in line-side stock and more flexibility to deal with customer choice.

Rover claims that more efficient delivery patterns and co-ordinated supply pick-up timetables have cut the amount of fuel needed by Oxford’s logistics operation by more than 2 million litres a year.

An integrated delivery and collection service from most UK and European suppliers ensures that one vehicle can pick up parts from several suppliers in a particular area. This increases load efficiency and cuts national and international lorry movements. A delivery pattern using separate entry and exit gates is scheduled over 24 hours to cut local traffic congestion. The volume of delivered goods has doubled without the number of deliveries rising.

Off-loading at Rover Oxford is being carried out by low-emission diesel trucks. The tow trucks used to supply the assembly area have eliminated 300 vehicle movements a day from local and in-plant roads. Use of returnable containers to deliver components to the line has eliminated packaging, meaning there is no landfill waste.

Another feature of Rover Oxford is a new dedicated railhead. This will transport about 5,000 cars this year, eventually rising to about 30,000 annually. The company claims more than 7,500 heavy goods vehicle movements will be eliminated by transporting its cars by rail over the next five years.

`We’ll be producing 150 cars per shift, which is 1,200 per week, moving up to 2,800 per week by the year end,’ says John Summers, continuous improvement engineer.

The terminal is part funded by a £351,600 grant from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It provides a secure storage and freight loading area, with Channel Tunnel security compliance.

When the factory has built up to full production, Rover expects eventually to export the 75 to 120 markets worldwide.

Overall, the Rover 75 project, including the development of the car and construction of the Oxford site, has cost BMW about £700m. It is a massive investment by the firm and is driven by the need for a quality product to restore Rover’s reputation. Rover engineers believe they have done their part – now it is time for the salesmen to do theirs.