British marque Mini is using the latest manufacturing methods to bring true personalisation to the mainstream car market, writes Chris Pickering
The ‘new’ Mini kick-started something of a revolution when the first example rolled off the Plant Oxford production line in 2001. But this time around it wasn’t the car’s clever monocoque construction, its space-efficient front-wheel drive layout or even the fact it was sensational to drive that set a new trend. Instead, it was about giving buyers the opportunity to stamp their own personal identity on the car.
Of course, companies such as Rolls-Royce have always been happy to sew hand-cut diamonds into the roof lining of your latest purchase or craft a matching luggage set out of ostrich skin from your own personal herd. But Mini brought a taste of this lifestyle to the high street and, since then, customisation has become big business for small hatchbacks. The average Mini now leaves the factory with options worth upwards of £3,500, while the rise of online car configurators has given buyers endless possibilities to tweak and tinker with their ideal specification.
Now, Mini has taken things a step further. Coinciding with the launch of its revamped three- and five-door hatchback models, the brand has introduced a new customisation service, Mini Yours Customised, which uses digital manufacturing techniques to create unique parts to the customer’s own personal specification. Want the door light to project a chequered flag onto the pavement when you get out or want your signature etched into the sill plates? Mini can arrange it. Why you’d want to do that is perhaps a harder question to answer, but take it from us, there are plenty who will.
The first technique relies on the 3D printing of interchangeable interior and exterior parts. This allows you to add text, icons and patterns to both the dashboard fascia panel and the side indicator surrounds.
“Personalisation has always been a big thing for Minis, going right back to the bonnet stripes on the original Coopers,” explained Thomas Schmitz, product manager for Mini’s customisation service. “We needed cost-effective tools to create one-off designs.”
Customers can create the designs themselves using an intuitive online app, from where the CAD data is sent direct to BMW’s 3D printing facility in Germany. There, the parts are produced using a special process co-developed with Hewlett Packard. The finished items have a pleasingly glossy finish, while the designs are clear and the text is easy to read. What’s more, they’re all designed to be shipped straight to the customer and fitted at home (so you could swap designs as the mood takes you or put the car back to standard).
For the LED-backlit sill plates, a laser-etching process is used. Not only can this handle a similar range of text, icons and patterns, but it also allows customers to draw their own designs using a mouse or a touchscreen. You can even submit a different design for each of the four main doors.
Finally, the door light system uses miniature projectors, with interchangeable slides. These can be substituted for the regular courtesy lights to cast a message or pattern onto the pavement, a bit like the Bat symbol illuminating the clouds above Gotham City.
It’s easy to dismiss this as superficial, but there is a huge demand for personalised products. What’s more, it could just be the tip of the iceberg. BMW already uses 3D printing to manufacture functional parts for its i8 Roadster and the brand has hinted this is an area it’s looking to expand.
It also points towards an increasingly digitised production process; one where consumers could potentially order a car straight from the factory to their own unique spec. And when that trend arrives, its impact could be every bit as wide-reaching as the design innovations pioneered by the original Mini.
Shining a light
The facelifted Mini hatchback is the first B-segment car to be offered with LED matrix headlights. As well as being some 2.5 times more luminous than conventional halogen bulbs, their matrix configuration allows the beam to be directed onto specific areas to avoid dazzling oncoming traffic.
A camera mounted on the windscreen detects the presence of oncoming vehicles and switches off parts of the matrix to reduce the intensity in certain areas of the beam. The idea is that this selective ‘dipping’ retains as much illumination as possible elsewhere. It also means that the system can operate automatically, theoretically eliminating the risk of dazzling oncoming traffic.
Mini’s Oxford plant already produces the brand’s five-door hatchback models, along with the Countryman estate version and selected three-door models.
The site has been used for car production since 1914. Final assembly now takes place in what was once the Morris bodyshop, built in 1926. Inside, it’s a thoroughly modern affair, with a ground-level production line comprising 200 stations, including eight fitted with vision systems, where the car is optically examined for any anomalies or defects. Away from the line, a fleet of autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) shuttles parts and assemblies around the factory, while a total of 4,600 people work on site.
The chassis are built in a £750m facility across the road – said to be the most up to date in Europe and home to 230 state-of-the-art robots. The petrol engines come from the Hams Hall plant near Birmingham, while the bare body panels are pressed in Swindon.
The factory received a further boost last year when it was confirmed that Mini’s forthcoming electric model would be built on site from 2019.