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Old habits die hard: BMW veterans beat young assembly-line workers

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Five years ago, managers at Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) realised that with Germany’s greying population the average age of their workers would jump from 41 to 46 by 2017. So they decided to make it happen sooner.

In 2007, the luxury automaker set up an experimental assembly line with older employees to see whether they could keep pace. The production line in Dingolfing, 50 miles northeast of BMW’s Munich base, features hoists to spare aging backs, adjustable-height work benches, and wooden floors instead of rubber to help hips swivel during repetitive tasks.

 

 

The verdict: Not only could they keep up, the older workers did a better job than younger staffers on another line at the same factory. Today, many of the changes are being implemented at plants across the company.

Like BMW, Germany’s other automakers are grappling with an aging workforce. With the country also facing a shortage of qualified engineers, many in the industry have decided that its best to keep good workers on the job as long as possible by adapting factories to their needs.

The problem is most pressing for luxury brands such as BMW and Volkswagen AG’s Audi because the higher-end manufacturers rely more on labour than volume manufacturers do. And there’s little substitute for the experience gained by years on the assembly line.

“A deficit of engineers and skilled workers is one of the major issues for German carmakers and will become acute in coming years,” said Stefan Bratzel, director at the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch-Gladbach, near Cologne. “So staff need to be kept fit on the assembly line.”

Magnifying glass

BMW says it implemented more than a dozen changes at Dingolfing, among them movable instruction screens with larger letters and a magnifying glass, and a two-hour rotation cycle to keep minds sharp by regularly switching tasks. “The 2017 assembly line became as productive as the younger one, but the quality was higher,” said Jochen Frey, a BMW spokesman on personnel issues.