by Robert A. Green
When BMW decides to launch a new line of vehicles, a few firsts should be expected. Created through the 1916 merger of an aircraft maker and an aircraft
engine manufacturer, the company first made history just three years later when a BMW biplane set a world altitude record of 9,760 meters. But with racing having replaced aeronautics as BMW's
"other" obsession, BMW history is now made on the asphalt.
With a number of luxury automakers entering the popular and profitable sports utility vehicle market, BMW was far from
first in the pool. Nevertheless, the German company's entree may just have generated the biggest splash.
In 2000, after the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety--a vehicle safety
testing organization--tested BMW's X5, Institute President Brian O'Neil hailed its performance as outstanding. "BMW has set the standard for all other manufacturers to aspire to," O'Neil claimed.
The BMW X5 had not only outperformed all of the other SUVs tested, it earned the highest rating the institute had ever given a vehicle of any type or price range.
"This achievement speaks not only to BMW's worldwide commitment to the safety of its vehicles, but also to driver protection instituted in the design and craftsmanship of the X5," boasts
Helmut Leube, president of BMW Manufacturing Corp. In addition to two electronic safeguards, hill descent control and dynamic stability control, Leube explains that the X5 also boasts BMW's hallmark security
package called--what else?--FIRST, for Fully Integrated Road Safety Technology.
Quality and safety--no accident
known for their insatiable craving for gasoline and some legitimate safety concerns, SUVs don't at first blush seem to be a perfect fit for BMW, which established its reputation as a maker of high-quality
motor vehicles in the 1930s.
Better known for their looks, which aspire to reach the aesthetic levels of museum-quality sculpture, as well as their precision mechanical superiority, BMW
vehicles are manufactured to exacting tolerances. But attaining such an astonishing safety rating is evidence that, for the X5, BMW raised the standard even higher.
"It goes without
saying that quality and safety are interrelated," affirms Eduard Walek, BMW's X5 project leader. "If you can't guarantee that each vehicle which comes off the production lines was produced in
accordance with a high quality standard, you can't ensure a high standard of safety either. But there's more to it than that. Safety must be designed, simulated, tested and, finally, produced. During all of
these stages, high quality standards must be met as far as computation, construction, testing and production are concerned."
But just having high standards doesn't ensure safety in
the finished product. Moreover, a safety rating as high as the X5's isn't earned by letting the chips fall where they may.
"Safety must not be left to chance," confirms Walek.
"It must be planned. Right from the beginning, it has been our intention to develop a vehicle that sets a new standard as far as the so-called SUVs are concerned. BMW has always adhered to the following
principle: The X5 must be as safe as the passenger cars produced by BMW. We did not accept the standards applicable to trucks. So, from the very first moment, we saw to it that the styling allows for high
A plant away from home
The place where each new X5 is born represents yet
another first for BMW. In 1993, the company began construction on a manufacturing plant (the first outside of Germany) in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The plant, which now employs more than 4,000 people and
represents a total investment of more than $1.7 billion, became the fastest start-up in automotive history when it began shipping vehicles just 23 months later.
"BMW sees itself as an
integral whole, irrespective of where the respective partners are located," explains Walek. "On the other hand, it has been a great challenge for our Spartanburg plant--as well as for our
suppliers--to construct the X5, which is an extremely complex vehicle.
"Quality programs were executed together with our suppliers at an early stage. After all, if our suppliers can't
meet it, even the highest BMW quality standard is useless. Today we are able to harvest the fruits of this process: The X5 is extremely popular with customers, and our production capacity has nearly reached
its limit, which, of course, only gives us further impetus to work harder."
The rubber meets the road
In 1999, BMW underwent a $650 million expansion of its South Carolina plant, adding to its footprint 1.2 million square feet. Sixty thousand square feet were added to expand the plant's
engineering capability alone, as a new center now allows for better integration between engineering and manufacturing.
Built exclusively at the South Carolina plant, which is registered
to both ISO 14001 and ISO 9002:1994, X5s are the first BMWs designed 100-percent digitally.
The use of computer technologies in its design phase sets the X5 apart. In an effort to reduce
vehicle-development time as well as push manufacturing tolerances tighter and tighter, BMW used 3-D computer-aided design programs from development through testing. CAD models efficiently defined possible
problem points early in the process and posed countermeasures. Design tests and structural evaluations, including simulations, were carried out by means of these CAD models, which offered highly reliable
results and confirmed the accuracy and safety of virtual examinations for the future. Additionally, by dramatically trimming production-development time, the CAD process enables BMW to respond faster to
customer needs and preferences in the future.
"Through CAD, it's possible to view different design variants in a short period of time," states Walek. "It's most important,
however, to evaluate these variants by making use of computer-aided engineering, which makes simulation possible."
BMW can conduct CAD-based tests to determine everything from a
vehicle's heating and air conditioning efficiency, to its body's behavior under varying wind pressure, to the various dynamics of vehicle movement and chassis load, to functionality of switches and displays,
to its deformation and intrusion in a crash.
"To ensure safety, it's absolutely necessary to carry out crash tests," Walek continues. "If these crash tests for the variants
can be carried out on the computer, it's possible to put the necessary finishing touches on the design. That's exactly what we've done with the X5. Elaborated computation models of prime quality, of course,
are a prerequisite. (These computation models are constantly adjusted to the results of real crash tests.) In this way, we can conduct numerous crash tests within a short period of time and without having to
consume real vehicles."
BMW utilizes various quality systems depending on the stage of the project. "During development, systematic approaches such as fault-tree methods and
system, design and process FMEAs are used," Walek confirms. "These systems are only fully effective if the associates responsible identify themselves with the quality subject.
"At the beginning of the development stage, the quality-related tasks were identified and executed one after the other under the management of the project managers that were in charge of the
respective sub-areas (body, electronics, chassis and drive train). The aim was to execute all tasks (approximately 1,000 of them) and find solutions before the commencement of series production.
"During development, the production plant associates who were to assume responsibility for quality at a later stage already belonged to the team so that the points relating to the production
process could be directly integrated into production. This helped us achieve a real nexus between production and development."
Here and there
The impressive nature of the X5's accomplishments is made only more grand when one considers the challenges BMW endured in building a vehicle completely and exclusively in the
United States in conjunction with development teams in Germany. Despite the challenges this posed, BMW got the vehicle to production in record time.
To compensate for the six-hour time
zone difference, overcome the 5,000-mile distance between the German and South Carolina sites, and bridge the linguistic and cultural differences, BMW again turned to technology. The company combined
Internet-based telecooperation systems, including e-mail discussion groups, live conferencing, file transfers, and access to remote databases with its own state-of-the-art Global Information Services.
Much of this shared information originated in the Spartanburg plant's Analysis Center, where BMW integrates engineering and manufacturing functions by providing the tools to evaluate
product issues on site.
The 60,000 square-foot Analysis Center covers three stages of vehicle development: pre-series, which focuses on functional analysis and compliance to standards;
series, which involves testing and improvements made on the line; and field, where the Analysis Center serves as the plant's platform for customer feedback.
On-site engineering supports
problem solving and facilitates continuous improvements throughout the production and manufacturing processes. State-of-the-art equipment enables engineers to check the dimensional accuracy of any part from
any vehicle in order to make decisions on the production line that help assure total quality, while testing labs provide in-depth analyses that help ensure excellence for vehicle interiors and exteriors,
electrical systems, chasses, powertrains, structure, dynamics and acoustics, and launch viability.
BMW's goals include cutting production and development times and reducing the time
between orders and delivery. The engineering group working in the Analysis Center is helping to accomplish this mission.
Not your daddy's SUV
From its inception, BMW never thought of the X5 as an SUV, as such labels would only serve to burden the project with the same limitations common among
current vehicles on the market. Instead, BMW attempted to produce something more--an exception to the rule.
BMW calls the X5 the world's first sports activity vehicle. Designed to combine
the acceleration and exceptional handling of a car with advanced traction technologies, including all-wheel drive, the X5 is more than just an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety "Best Pick."
It's proof that with cutting-edge technology, exacting standards and a commitment to quality from concept through production, tomorrow's expectations can soar higher than yesterday's possibilities.
"To design the X5 in a way so that it meets high safety standards is one thing," asserts Walek. "It's another thing, however, to design it in a way so that it has the same
driving qualities of a passenger car, which requires that the vehicle not exceed a certain weight limit.
"In order to master this challenging task, we decided not to use the ladder
frame, which is normally used for vehicles of this class. Instead we used an integral body frame. For the first time, BMW has developed a vehicle of this size with the driving qualities and the security
standards of a passenger car."
In January, the 50,000th X5 rolled off the South Carolina production line. Sales are great, and the accolades are piling up just as quickly. BMW
produces more than 350 X5s per day in South Carolina, and production is struggling to keep up with demand. Nevertheless, the innovations have not come to an end.
"The X5 has the same
life-cycle management as other BMWs," Walek explains. "Technology is continuously changing." And, given the X5's fast development time and BMW's continuing effort to improve, it's likely the
X5 will change just as quickly.
About the author
Robert A. Green is Quality Digest's news editor. E-mail him at contact_us.