Aerial view of BMW's Spartanburg, SC plant
Aerial view of BMW’s Spartanburg, SC plant. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Paul Williams

It’s been over a decade since the first American-built BMW rolled off the line at the company’s manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina (it was September, 1994, to be exact, and the car was a 318i).

But after a complete run of 297,087 Z3 sports cars and 616,867 of the original X5 Sports Activity Vehicles, overall investment of nearly five billion dollars (US) and the creation of 4,500 jobs, the decision to “go American” has paid off handsomely for BMW and the South Carolina economy. A significant milestone was reached in February 2006, when the one-millionth vehicle rolled off the Spartanburg line, a blue Z4.

It should be noted that the Spartanburg plant is BMW’s first full manufacturing facility outside Germany, and that all X5 Sports Activity Vehicles, Z4 Roadsters, M Roadsters, Z4 Coupes and M Coupes are built in South Carolina. From there, they are delivered to Canadian and U.S. dealers, and exported throughout the world. The largest market for these vehicles, however, is the U.S., which is the rationale for locating the plant there: “Our philosophy is to build the vehicles closest to their largest market,” explained Dr. Clemens Schmitz-Justenat, President of BMW Manufacturing Co. at the 2007 BMW X5 press introduction.

Z4s and X5s coming off the assembly line
Z4s and X5s coming off the assembly line. Click image to enlarge

One of the biggest developments in the history of the plant was the demolition of the Z4 Roadster assembly area in 2004, and the conversion of the entire plant into a one-line production facility. According to BMW, it gives the factory flexibility that allows for seasonal fluctuation of models consistent with market demand, and enables the company to introduce new models with a shorter lead-time.

Indeed, if you tour the plant now, you’ll see X5s, Z4 Roadsters and Coupes moving down the line, one after the other. Each line worker (“associate”) adjusts to the specific requirements of each vehicle as it arrives at his or her station, and the manufacturing infrastructure (software, human resources, robotics, parts supply) is in a state of continuous adaptation that enables particular production tasks to occur at the right time, in the right place.

There are five key components to the production process at Spartanburg: Body, Paint, Assembly, Logistics and Quality Control.

The paint application process
The paint application process
The paint application process
The paint application process. Click image to enlarge

In the Body Shops, you see the metal pieces of each vehicle being welded together, then precisely ground and sanded to a smooth surface. In the Z4 Body Shop, 90 per cent of the process is automated; in the X5 Body Shop, 75 per cent is automated.
The Paint process for BMW vehicles begins with a thorough cleaning followed by the application of a zinc phosphate coating that allows the water-based undercoat to properly adhere.

A cathode dip bath provides corrosion resistance, and an electrical current draws the paint into remote parts of the vehicle. The body moves to a drying tunnel where the primer is baked onto it. After underbody protection is applied, the base coat is added. High-speed atomizers provide an ultra-fine mist, drawn onto the body by electrostatic charging to give the smoothest possible finish. The final topcoat is applied and hardened in a drying oven. You’ll see no actual people, paint guns in hand, in a factory like this.

On the Assembly Lines, the vehicle receives its internal systems. The installation of fuel lines, fuel tank, wiring system and sound baffling are the first steps, followed by the placement of the seats, dashboard, heating and air conditioning and windshield.

Finally assembly of vehicles
Finally assembly of vehicles
Finally assembly of vehicles
Finally assembly of vehicles. Click image to enlarge

The last steps are the “marriage” of the engine to the body, and wheel/tire mounting. Finally the vehicle is started for the first time, undergoes a simulated test drive and is high-pressure water tested to ensure the reliability of seals and fittings. Some vehicles are randomly selected to an actual test drive on the performance track next to the plant. The company is allowed to return their odometers to zero after such a test.

Keeping everything running smoothly are the personnel involved with Logistics. They develop the systems, and manage the processes required to custom-build vehicles and coordinate the manufacturing sequence. Suppliers are continuously delivering parts to the plant, and these are distributed to match the order in which the vehicles are manufactured.

Finally, the Analysis Centre integrates engineering and manufacturing functions by providing tools to evaluate issues on the site. The Centre contains testing labs for electrical analysis, endurance and reliability, as well as noise reduction and road simulation. Engineers are also able to check dimensional accuracy of any part of the vehicle in order to make adjustments “on the line” that optimize vehicle build quality.

Fitting components to an X5
Fitting components to an X5. Click image to enlarge

These are the people that ensure panel gaps are consistent, parts fit together properly, and components operate as intended. They are responsible for analysing vehicle interiors and exteriors, electrical systems, chassis and power trains, structure, dynamics and acoustics. Their ultimate objective is to ensure vehicle excellence.

BMW does have a program whereby you can go to Spartanburg, take delivery of the vehicle you’ve ordered, and then drive it home.

E30 M3
BMW Isetta and trailer
A 1987 BMW M3 (top) and an Isetta with matching trailer on display in BMW’s Spartanburg “Zentrum” vistor’s centre and museum. Click image to enlarge

A short distance from the manufacturing plant is the Zentrum, a combination visitor centre and museum. While modest in scale (compared with the BMW museum in Munich, Germany), the 28,000 square foot building contains a range of fascinating and desirable BMW vehicles that date back to 1930. Visitors will see, among others, a BMW 507, “James Bond’s” Z3, a 1987 E30 M3, motorcycles, aircraft engines, race cars, and a quaint array of Isetta bubble cars (one with a matching trailer).

The Zentrum also functions as a staging area for tours of the manufacturing plant, which can be arranged in advance through the BMW Spartanburg website.

Also, a virtual tour can be found at

To view more photos of the plant, click here.

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