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Posted on: June 28, 2017

GreenvileOnline: Robots Part of Workforce Evolution at BMW

BMW Robots

(Photo: JOSH MORGAN/Staff)

By: Abe Hardesty, Staff

When he joined the BMW production staff in 1994, Chad Johnson had never built a car. Nor had anyone else on that original crew.

"We were used-car salesmen, cooks, college kids, mechanics, cotton mill workers ... we were all things except car builders," Johnson recalled last week at the BMW campus, where he has worked for 23 of his 46 years.

The setting helped mold a camaraderie, Johnson recalls, as the group sought to prove that BMW’s standards of craftsmanship could be met in Greer, South Carolina.

"We still talk about that," Johnson said of the desire to meet high expectations.

"We thought of the original investment as more of a trial to see if we could build in America with the same quality done in Bavaria," Johnson said. "The competence was not here to build a car (in 1994), but the drive, the work ethic was here."

Johnson was confident in those early years, largely because he saw the sense of pride that followed workers from the cotton mills to the BMW assembly line.

"People took pride in being good at their jobs," said Johnson, a graduate of Anderson’s Westside High whose parents and grandparents worked in mills. "That set the tone for the work here."

BMW executives also saw it, as they choose the location for the company’s first manufacturing plant outside of Germany. The depth of the research surprised South Carolina Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt, who served as BMW’s head of corporate affairs in its first 18 years in the United States.

"Groups of BMW officials would ride around in the (Upstate) neighborhoods, looking at the way people took pride in their houses and their cars," Hitt recalled, "and used that as an indicator of the way they took pride in their jobs."

Novice automakers adapted well to the challenge of working alongside other new welders, which makes Johnson confident in the shift to another trend — working with an increasing number of robots.

"The robots were limited back then," said Johnson, referring to the era of human welding at BMW, where 6,000 spot welds go into every vehicle. "It had to be done right, so we had to go slow. It required a lot of quality checks."

By the late 1990s, much of the welding on the Z3 models was robotic, "and we haven’t looked back," Johnson said.

Robots, which made up only 2 percent of the workforce when the assembly line began moving in 1994, play an increasingly greater role in making those intricate, tedious welds in the BMW body shop today. Johnson supervises a team that includes 1,200 robots.

Next month, when Johnson moves to a new and expanded body shop, the number will reach 2,000. Another 240 robots work in the paint shop and about two dozen work in assembly, taking care of heavy lifting that once created sore backs.

"They’re more efficient, and they reduce fatigue," Johnson said. "They have transferred the body shop into a more technical workplace."

BMW’s plant is 98 percent automated, which means robots are part of nearly every production station.

"They’ve replaced welding with technology, which is still evolving today. We’ve really progressed in recent years," said Johnson, who views robots as helpers rather than rivals. "Associates are free to do more quality inspections."

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