Inside the BMW U.S. Facility

Written by Keith Wertman


I had my first opportunity to visit the BMW plant in Spartanburg, SC back in December of 1996. Over the course of the next 6 or 7 years I toured the plant at Z3 Homecoming events, local CCA and about any other time I could get in. One special tour started at 7pm and ended just after 1am–we donned white suits and made a journey into the ultra clean paint rooms to watch the robots up close and personal. I saw the models change, the plant add another production line and expand time and time again. The article below has been edited a few times with additional information as I saw fit. You can always fit the facilities websites for more details and a multimedia experience.

The Tour

I had the pleasure late last year of visiting the Zentrum and touring the BMW Z3 assembly facility in Spartanburg, South Carolina with my Industrial Engineering society. The facility tour followed a brief visit to the Zentrum, a visitors center that is filled with BMW automobiles as well as other marques. Our tour of the Zentrum provided a brief history of the BMW automobile, along with information on BMW’s safety testing and environmental involvement. Visit our Zentrum page to see some of the displays.


The Zentrum features a virtual factory tour which allows the visitor to see how the Z3 is assembled from beginning to end. The virtual tour takes place on three separate video screens in the front and on the sides of the visitor. This setup allows the visitor to see the construction process, and gives the sense as though the car is being built around you. This provided an excellent primer before the tour.

As the tour group assembled outside the virtual tour we were met by our tour guide, an engineer in the logistics department, and issued personal headsets and safety glasses. The headsets allow for all members to clearly interact with each other through verbal communication throughout the tour. He welcomed our engineering group to BMW and began the tour as we walked toward the assembly facility.

The current plant consists of about 1.2 million square feet (about 53 football fields). This figure does not include the 500,000 square foot expansion which will be used for the production of a sport utility vehicle sometime in 1999. Approximately 2,000 associates call the BMW facility home. The facility was originally built as an assembly plant for the 318, but was converted for the Z3. The facility is the only one in the world that produces the Z3. It currently produces five variations of the Z3; the 1.9, 2.8, M, 2.8 coupe and M coupe.

Paint shop wing of the facility

The tour begins as you enter the building with the paint facility directly to the visitor’s right. Here the Z3′s line-up within the paint shop just prior to being painted. The paint shop, located behind a glass wall, is unique in the sense that the cars travel vertically into paint lines to eliminate long lines and more efficiently organize paint queues. You can see the paint shop portion of the facility in the photo to the left. BMW’s paint shop is one of the environmentally friendliest facilities in the world based on its use of water soluble paints and sealers. Currently, the paint shop can produce up to 56 different colors.

The next stop on the tour is the body shop. This is where production of the car begins. Metal stampings of the automobile are inspected and placed into jigs. These jigs move into robotic cells were they are welded. Thirty-eight robots perform the intricate welding that would be impractical, if not impossible for a worker to perform. These robots were off-line during our visit due to the line being out of balance. As a robot goes off-line it sets off a musical alarm and flashes a set of signals on a scoreboard high overhead. The facility produces roughly 130 cars per shift. Currently, the facility uses two shifts per day. The facility had completed its 105th car during the day when we started our tour. The facilities goal is to assemble a Z3 in 21 days from the time an order is received at the facility until it is shipped. This is a massive project considering that they are still working with a backlog of orders.

As an order enters the floor, a specific bill of materials (BOM) is created. This workorder, or BOM is attached to the car and contains the customer’s name and options requested by the customer. At this time a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is also assigned to the automobile. As the vehicle is assembled individual components arrive to the facility and to the assembly line (Just In Time). Over 2,800 pieces are used to produce a Z3. Many of these components arrive within hours of assembly from local vendors, such as, exhaust systems, seats, bumpers, metal stamping, and tires. BMW is looking to increase even further its local vendors in the future in order to eliminate material backlogs, thus improving the production process. The biggest logistics problem for BMW to manage is the engines and transmissions. These components arrive almost daily from Europe via ocean container. An interesting note is that BMW does not deadhead trailers. In other words, they manage their containers and traffic to and from the ports so that they are never moving empty containers.

Throughout the tour, conveyors passed overhead and in front of us with Z3′s in various states of assembly, some moving to and from the paint shop, and others moving to final assembly. These conveyor systems used by BMW were designed by ski lift manufacturers located in Germany. The conveyor is very quite because of its use of a rope, as opposed to a chain which is more commonly seen in conveyor systems. Forklifts also were continuously moving product from the receiving docks to the assembly line as the stock pile depleted. This was a real tour, no glass walls, or painted lines, we walked the floor avoiding forklifts and passing associates.

As the Z3 nears completion, the car takes form with the addition of a hand assembled suspension system and final interior work. As a car is completed it is driven from the line for the first time to a emissions station, and then on to a dynamometer where it is put through a diagnostic test. The tester follows a computer screen testing program mounted in front of the car. Tests include, accelerating to 90 kilometers an hour and shift pattern tests. After these tests, adjustments are made and the car proceeds to the test track for a quick run and some final adjustments. Each Z3 is then subjected to a high pressure water leakage test, commonly referred to as the hurricane test. After going through this last test the car makes the transition from a raw materials stage to a completed car in BMW’s inventory. The car is now ready for shipment.

Z3s outside the plant

Everyday at least one completed car is pulled from the production line and quality inspected inside and out. All of the managers meet in the quality area for the final results. These managers will take the results from the quality inspection back to their departments where they work with the associates on maintaining BMW’s high quality standards. It is also important to note that this is not the only quality check, quality inspections are performed in each stage of production prior to movement to the next stage. The BMW worker is empowered to point out problems and get them fixed throughout the production process. This quality process is proven by the abundance of performance and quality charts that can be seen throughout the plant. During the tour, I had the opportunity to see almost every color Z3 available, along with each variant of the Z3. I also had the privilege of seeing a turquoise M edition. I must say that this facilitated my decision in ordering my own Z3 in turquoise.

If you are traveling through the Spartanburg, SC area it is well worth a visit to the Zentrum and possibly a plant tour (if scheduled in advance).

One Response to “Inside the BMW U.S. Facility”

  1. Daniel Says:
    May 29th, 2008 at 4:14 pm

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