BMW to Ready Spartanburg, S.C., Plant for New X5

GREER, S.C. -- BMW Manufacturing's month-long shutdown next year will prepare the Spartanburg County plant for a future that will include a new X5 sports activity vehicle.

Plant officials are remaining silent about future models, saying only that the plant will become more flexible by trimming from two assembly lines to one.

But reports from automotive industry experts say that the second-generation X5 SAV, which will be built at the Upstate plant, will be launched in late 2006 for the 2007 model year.

BMW spokesman Bobby Hitt is saying only that the single line will give the company more flexibility to alter production in response to demand, or to produce different types of vehicles. The changeover will force the plant to close for at least a month next November.

"We need maximum flexibility and efficiency," Hitt said.

In preparation for the assembly line reconfiguration, BMW recently was issued an $8 million Spartanburg County building permit. Tooling and equipment costs could bring the total investment to about $80 million.

The automaker will add about 139,000 square feet to its 2.5 million-square-foot facility to accommodate the new single-line configuration.

Under the new system, all manufacturing employees will be cross-trained to build multiple models of vehicles on the single line.

Recently, BMW executives and others have talked about what might be coming next to the Greer plant.

In June 2003, BMW board member and worldwide production head Norbert Reithofer said the next model to be produced at the Greer plant will be the successor to the X5.

Last month, Auto Week published a story, with spy photographs, about the X5, which will reportedly be taller, longer and wider and will include an option for a third row that will increase seating capacity to seven.

Other media reports from around the world have suggested that BMW is considering building a sports wagon or high-roofed vehicle at the Greer plant. While in the Upstate last year, Reithofer suggested that other future models could include the X3 (the Austrian-made younger sibling of the X5), the 3 Series or the 5 Series.

But Hitt said he had no specific knowledge of what might be next for the plant.

"You could put a gun to my head and ask me, on threat of death, 'What will the next model be at this plant?' and I couldn't tell you because that decision hasn't been made yet," Hitt said.

Taking the plant to a single-line manufacturing process will bring BMW's Greer plant back to its roots.

When the plant started producing vehicles in 1994, it produced 318i sedans and Z3 roadsters on a single line. The plant added a second line for the X5 because that vehicle was so much larger and more complex than the roadster, Hitt said.

Because manufacturing processes and supplier reliability have improved at the plant so much in the past 10 years, Hitt said, it's now feasible for the plant to go back to a single-line operation.

Other BMW facilities also are using the single-line method. The company's Dingolfing, Germany, plant produces its 5, 6 and 7 series models on a single line, and a plant being built in Leipzig, Germany, also will be a single-line plant, said company spokeswoman Bunny Richardson.

Hitt said next year's plant shutdown, which was announced to employees several weeks ago, will be structured so that workers will not lose any time off work.

Workers receive 10 to 12 days off with pay each year during an end-of-the-year shutdown, Hitt said, and summer shutdowns for 2005 and 2006 will be moved to next year's holiday season, creating a four-week period during which the shutdown and line conversion will occur.

Once the single production line begins operation, it should not require any fewer people than the 4,600 who already work at the plant, Hitt said.

The change is part of an economic development incentive package created in September 2002, in which BMW pledged to invest $400 million and create 400 jobs. This project should help the company exceed those targets.

It's also an expected part of BMW's quest to remain competitive and profitable, Hitt said.

"This happens in car plants all over the world," he said. "If a manufacturing plant is not constantly reinvesting in its process, that manufacturing plant is dying."