How BMW reinvents the factory for older workers

The German car maker has adapted sections of its factories so it's easier for older employees to do their work.

Michaela Rehle/REUTERS/File
Employee Josef Kronschnabel stands next to the new axle gearing production line in Dingolfing, southern Germany in this 2011 file photo.

As the gray metal chassis sweep along the conveyor belt, Matthias Gomille bends his body up and down, up and down, as he has methodically since 5 a.m. He carefully fastens parts to the steel skeletons that, by day's end, will transform into 1,500 new BMWs.

The work would be physically demanding for anyone, even a young person, but Mr. Gomille is approaching 60. Yet he is able to surmount the rigors thanks in part to what is essentially an industrial body trainer – a physiotherapist who has taught him how to stay limber on the line.

"She showed me how to stretch," says Gomille. "The physiotherapist says it's better to do a bit of exercise all day long."

The presence of physical trainers on the factory floor is one way BMW, the luxury German carmaker, is reinventing the assembly line to accommodate an aging workforce. From special ergonomic chairs to expansive exercise rooms, it is finding new ways to make senior workers comfortable while crafting some of the world's most coveted cars.

For BMW, it is all a matter of necessity. Like many industries in Western countries, the firm faces the challenge of trying to remain globally competitive with an experienced but graying workforce.

A maze of BMW plants, nestled at the foot of the Alps in this Bavarian village, is the region's biggest employer. Known for the quality and loyalty of its workforce, it has helped turn Lower Bavaria into one of Europe's wealthiest enclaves.

Yet by 2020, roughly half of BMW's 18,000 workers in Dingolfing will be over age 50, up from 25 percent today. Faced with a probable decline in productivity, BMW reacted in an unusual way.

"The managers went to the workers and said, 'We have a problem, but we have no idea how to solve it,' " says Fabian Sting of the Rotterdam School of Management, coauthor of "How BMW is Defusing the Demographic Time Bomb." "What they were driven by was the idea that we really want to keep our workforce."

In 2007 BMW managers singled out a line within its Dingolfing complex that manufactures gearboxes. The firm staffed it with 42 workers with an average age of 47 and invited laborers, representatives from work councils, and technical experts to brainstorm about how to redo the plant with people of all ages in mind.

One person suggested wooden floors, which are softer on the knees. Another said the company could learn a lesson from his barber, whose chair telescopes up and down to make tasks easier.

So BMW contacted the maker of the barber's chair. Soon the plant was equipped with adaptable seats. In all, BMW's "Today for Tomorrow" project led to 70 changes. They included laying new floors, outfitting workers with special shoes, installing easier-to-read computer screens, letting laborers sit instead of stand, and piping in more daylight.

Now, five years later, BMW has implemented similar ideas on most of its assembly lines in Germany and around the world. One of them is to have workers rotate jobs during a shift. No longer do they repeat one task all day.

"It's like waking up again," says Christine Schlauch, a newly hired engineer.

On the assembly line, posters remind workers about the importance of stretching and nutrition. A recreation area, equipped with mats and wall bars, offers an escape from the clatter of the line.

"It's still hard physical work, but we try to make it easier," says Ms. Schlauch.

BMW is trying to get workers to improve their lifestyle outside the factory, too. If "they go home, lie on the couch, turn the TV on, and drink one beer after the other, that won't help," says physiotherapist Joanna Wieschollek.

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