BMW's Cowley Mini plant has saved £500,000 on its networking services. The savings were made by adopting a partnering approach with supplier Omnetica and by rolling network operations and Cisco maintenance into one contract, writes Antony Adshead.
The £500,000, three-year contract replaces separate arrangements costing £1m a year with Istel and another supplier. The changeover to the mission-critical plant networks took place over a six-week period - half the time normally allocated by Omnetica for such a task.
BMW places rigorous demands on its networks. Mini production runs to about 600 cars a day and each car is made to order, with many variations on engine and trim available. Because of the individuality of each vehicle as it passes along the line, flows of information are critical to producing the right car for each customer.
Sequencing parts into the assembly process is passed down from a central planning system and assembly information - right down to the torque applied to wheelnuts - is passed back to the ERP system. The network topology is three-tiered: ATM core, distribution and access.
Because of the critical nature of the information flows to car production, networks must be maintained and monitored 24x7, and service level agreements determine that all faults must be fixed within one hour. Plant networks and telecoms manager Neville Richardson said, "Everything is controlled by the system. If the systems fail, everything stops."
Duplicates of network appliances are kept on site and a Cisco device can be changed in 40 minutes, said Richardson.
Omnetica - formerly Siemens Network Systems - provides a "hybrid" management service. In other words, some staff are kept on site to attend to emergencies and hardware failures, while monitoring is carried out from the company's Hemel Hempstead facility.
In these troubled times for the networking industry, the closure of a supplier could knock out the network more comprehensively than a faulty switch, and Richardson takes this danger seriously. "We do financial health checks on suppliers and they have to be impressive to do business with us," he said.
"If something happened to Omnetica, would it be a bullseye for us? Yes. But we have standard ways of doing things so we could move to another supplier if need be. We are set up so we could carry on, though it would be painful. In former times, restrictive contracts and a lack of skills in-house would have made this much more difficult."
The Cowley plant follows BMW's "IT blueprint". "We look at our technologies as a group," said Richardson. "The blueprint comes out from headquarters at Munich and ensures there are no variations to core applications and network infrastructure."
The relationship with Omnetica took time to bed in, said Richardson. "There were some issues at the start of the contract over keeping records up to date and reaction times, but these were soon sorted out."
And some relationships don't last if the supplier does not perform to BMW's exacting demands. "We had one big name supplier booted off site during the roll-out. It let us down on fundamentals - deliveries, installation work, where cables were running, keeping records," he said.
Summing up what enabled BMW to make the savings, Richardson identified the bottom line - basically, it costs less - and the rolling together of networking services in a more suitable contract than that inherited after the break up of the Rover Group. He also identified the partnering approach as saving time and making management more efficient.
"Working with a partner rather than just a supplier has definitely contributed. They are familiar with our requirements so less time is spent talking when something needs to be done."
BMW's network needs
BMW needed 24x7 monitoring and a one-hour fix for mission-critical car production systems on the Mini production line
A combination of remote monitoring and on-site network maintenance staff ensures a quick response. This supercedes a situation of multiple suppliers and an inflexible contract inherited from the Rover Group break-up
BMW conducts financial health checks on suppliers and has standard IT blueprints that suppliers have to work to, so the company is confident it can weather any turmoil affecting network suppliers.