The BMW Group Plant Hams Hall generates oceans of data in the process of assembling its world-famous engines and components. Making sense of all that data, however, used to be like sorting through piles of puzzle pieces.

Located near Birmingham, England, Hams Hall machines key engine components and assembles highly efficient three and four cylinder petrol engines, as well as V8 and V12 engines, for a range of BMW Group vehicles. With a vast amount of data being collected in the facility, key data ended up siloed, leaving no bird’s eye view of Hams Hall’s overall operations. 

Two years ago, Hams Hall began an effort to centralize its entire data gathering infrastructure. It first developed a Fully Connected Digital Twin of the facility then later acquired Boston Dynamics’ quadruped robot Spot in 2023 to conduct automated inspections that directly fed data back to this Digital Twin.

For its efforts, Hams Hall earned “Smart Factory of the Year” honors at the 2023 Manufacturer MX awards, the most prestigious industry awards in the UK.

“We have to be competitive and a viable supplier of these components,” said Brad Tomlinson, the Technical Lead of Hams Hall’s Innovation and Digitalization (I&D) team. “The mindset should be that everyone in the facility has this innovation available and understands how they can utilize the tools being developed in order to make their area better.”

Many Data Streams, One Destination

Hams Hall is operating volume production across three machining lines (some 1.4 million components per year and two engine manufacturing facilities—around 400,000 engines a year) over a number of shifts throughout the week. At one point, internal teams were using over 400 custom dashboards to compile data relevant to their specific areas all using different methods of data access. Hams Hall needed a single source of truth for this data, that is accessible to all team members.

Creating the digital twin involved integrating more than 15 different IT systems into a three-dimensional model of the factory that team members could access using a smartphone or tablet. It was a herculean effort, but the I&D team was committed to creating a process robust enough to last and simple enough to be embraced by employees. The twin now displays live production data using green or red symbols to show the health of a given system inside the factory. 

“By utilizing the digital twin as a no-code platform, we wanted to clean this landscape of dashboards,” said Christian Poss, the Innovation and Digitalization team manager. “We have all the data available and organized for our people, for our specialists. Whenever they have a problem, they don’t need to spend hours finding the right data source and understanding the problem, they can get right on it. Everyone refers to the digital twin now.”

3 engineers review thermal inspection data on a monitor

Expanding Inspections

Given that the amount of machinery required to maintain production is immense—so is the need to ensure equipment is always working properly via regular inspections. Hams Hall has an extensive tunnel system with pipes, chillers, and hydraulic panels that are vulnerable to air leaks. Despite the critical role of this equipment, the digital twin revealed areas of the facility where inspection data was missing altogether. It was clear the I&D team needed to assist maintenance teams to expand and automate inspection efforts.

“That manual inspection time can take a couple of hours per shift for some of the most experienced specialists. If we can reutilize the team’s time in order to do preventative maintenance work, we’re naturally going to be more efficient.”

Brad Tomlinson, Technical Lead, Hams Hall’s Innovation and Digitalization Team

“Even having all the data systems we have at BMW, we found out that we still have plenty of blind spots,” said Poss. Previously, the factory brought in contractors to inspect for air leaks with specialist equipment. Having the Hams Hall maintenance team take over these manual inspections would take hours away from time spent on actual maintenance or repairs. The I&D team turned to automation instead.

“That manual inspection time can take a couple of hours per shift for some of the most experienced specialists,” said Tomlinson. “If we can reutilize the team’s time in order to do preventative maintenance work, we’re naturally going to be more efficient.”

Fixed Sensors Versus Mobile Sensors

Placing IoT sensors on equipment was one option for gathering automated readings, but the I&D team determined it would take years to install all the sensors required and prove too costly. A mobile robot equipped with IoT sensors that could cover the same amount of area, repeating the exact measurements in challenging conditions would be a fraction of the cost.

Spot was the clear choice.

“We recognized we have a really good level of transparency now in our production data,” said Tomlinson. “With that transparency we can start to identify the gaps and we wanted to use Spot, to fill those gaps. We didn’t have temperature data about all our assets, or manual dial readings and acoustic anomaly reports down to specifics. That’s how we’re using Spot.”

Scaling Operations with Young Talent

Another clear advantage of Spot is that it doesn’t require years of experience to operate. This is especially important because BMW has a dynamic internship program for university students. In the UK, undergraduate students dedicate their entire third year of studies to a professional internship—and BMW treats its interns as equals.

Interns rotate through every year however, so BMW Group Plant Hams Hall needed technology interns who could learn and adapt quickly. Spot allows the I&D team to scale inspections and develop other solutions while ensuring a quality internship for students. In fact, two interns lead the Spot integration program. 

“We’re working with a team of young professionals, which helps us be agile in terms of how quickly we can roll these things out. Also, it gives these students a really good internship, but it equally reflects on how flexible the existing hardware is.” said Tomlinson.

A group of 5 young engineers pose with Spot in an industrial facility

Machines Can’t Break Down

For example, one Data Science intern is responsible for programming Spot’s autonomous routes and oversees the integration of Spot’s data into the digital twin. The placement student programs Spot to take six autonomous walks a day, with routes determined by order of importance.

Spot currently uses several sensors for inspections, including a thermal camera to measure temperature, a Fluke SV600 acoustic sensor to identify air leaks, a 360° camera, and LIDAR for 3D scanning. As these machines have to be running 24/7, they have priority on auto walks so a schedule is created for a certain station to be inspected once a day, and another station once a week. 

During the first weeks of inspections with the acoustic sensor, for example, Poss said Spot found air leaks in unexpected places, which piqued the interest of team members on the factory floor to ensure they were monitored regularly.

“It’s almost like completing the loop from Spot to the digital twin and right back down onto the factory floor with the maintenance associates. Spot’s actually almost fully embedded into the maintenance system.”

Brad Tomlinson, Technical Lead, Hams Hall’s Innovation and Digitalization Team

Spot Data Goes 3D

Tomlinson says a perfect example of how Spot has made operations more efficient is with maintenance requests. Employees can now log into the digital twin, zoom into specific areas to view Spot’s inspection details, and submit a maintenance request right there on screen.

“It’s almost like completing the loop from Spot to the digital twin and right back down onto the factory floor with the maintenance associates,” said Tomlinson. “Spot’s actually almost fully embedded into the maintenance system.”

New Use Cases Abound

For 80 percent of its schedule, Spot makes routine inspections. However, the other 20 percent of the time is spent looking forward. Another industrial engineering intern focuses on change management and scale and their role is to have conversations with colleagues on the factory floor to identify innovative solutions Spot can provide.

“Regardless if it’s through inspections, anomalies, or maintenance parts, the feeling you get from the people when they see Spot on the shop floor is general excitement,” said Poss.

Controlling Spot with a tablet, the intern can bring the robot to production lines for ad hoc inspections. Employees with years of experience and who know their equipment might want to use Spot to investigate a loose bearing or unusual vibration. The intern will bring Spot over to take a measurement and the team can decide if a repair is urgent or if it can wait.

“People see Spot as very state-of-the-art technology, and it’s so cool that the robot moves and inspects everything,” said Poss. “But the warm response you get with having Spot on the shop floor, the way people communicate with you, is really collaborative between different departments and shows the value that Spot provides.”