Friday, October 8, 2010

Birmingham - 24 hour lesson on Design

At Birmingham I experienced great and awful design in 24 hours, the great

design came in the form of the historic motorcycles in the worlds largest Motorcycle Museum, and in the Jaguar Factory Tour, seeing how modern Jags are assembled today.

The bad design was present everywhere in my hotel room, that even though was conveniently located, is the worst built thing I've ever seen.

From Bath I took a train to Birmingham, and arrived at night,

after a while I got to my hotel chosen not for it’s accommodatio

ns but for its closeness to the National Motorcycle Museum, which is a couple of miles off the Birmingham International Airport.

The Gables Guesthouse as it’s called was close, and that was it, for it was right by a busy highway and the room was small, equipped with cheap furniture and built as light as a building can be built without being called a real size architecture model. However no graduated architects took part in the plans of this guest house, as it was obvious there had been no planning.

The right closet door could not be opened because the tav table was there, the remote-less TV cou

ld not be seeing while lying in bed because the closet was there, and the bath door could not be opened without first moving the chair

so that it blocked the room entrance door.

In the bathroom they couldn’t fit the WC in the place they intended because you couldn’t open the shower door, so they moved it to a proper location and put an ugly horizontal 8 inch drain pipe to match with the ill planned plumbing hole in the floor.

I’m quite sure my 5 year old son can plan a room better than this, it’s actually hard to make so many design mistakes in something that had less than 12 square meters including the bath. Oh yes, the power outlets (the gigantic power outlets they use in the UK), were placed right by your head at the side of the bed, probably so you could unplug things using your teeth.

It was so wrong that instead of getting upset I actually felt sorry for the constructor and the owner... It was such a mess, like all the left-right swapping thing from driving on the other side, got into the builders head and confused him to right down to the bones. However the indian couple that owned the place were nice and accommodating - I suspect there had a quota of shame for the 7 capital sins of des

ign and architecture they had perpetrated. They had a nice restaurant that smelled of two generations of curry cooking, good beer, and fixed me a good breakfast the next morning.

After breakfast I took a cab to the National Motorcycle Museum, which is the

largest collection of Motorcycles in the world (hopefully they will expand more someday to include non UK-bikes as well, but it seems unlikely at this time). An amazing collection of 800 historically significant Bikes that is constantly growing. What is even more amazing is that the Museum burned (due to a cigarette stub apparently) in 1998 and some 400 bikes were burned in the fire, some beyond repair, and all of them were either replaced by an identical donation or completely restored by 2007.

I spent 3 hours in the morning admiring the bikes and their very detailed stories, in 3 of the 5 large halls, and had to leave of the Jaguar Factory Tour I had signed up at 1:00, so after the tour I returned in the afternoon and finished with the other 3 halls before leaving for the train station. The Museum is a fantastic place to visit for any motorcycle enthusiast, specially if you like UK vintage bikes like I do.

The Jaguar Factory Tour

Upon arriving at the Jaguar Factory in Castle Bromwich I was offered tea while I could admire

and sit on the new models in the showroom, and when our group gathered the tour started with a short introductory video. Then we were handed reflective Jaguar factory vests, helmets and headsets and our tour guide - a retired gentleman who used to work there in various position up to a section supervisor in the Ford years - took our 8 people group on a van to the XJ assembly section, two 15 acre buildings that are part of the 120 acre

Factory at Castle Bromwich (there are 3 more plants in the UK that specialize in upholstery and carpentry, new models and research and something else).

There are tours focusing on the XK and the smaller sedans as well.

Our guide was very detailed in explaining how the efficiency of Just in Time production and automation of the plant - 120 robots and 200 workers - to assemble the XJ lineup, is the way for Jaguar to compete in the modern time, with Japanese and other European firms that are also producing fine cars with these same techniques. And how Jaguar was not up for employees excuses anymore but for timely results, all of which made sense. Unfortunately, he also made some bad taste jokes as how the robots are never tired, don’t have sick kids, or answer back. As a manager myself I can understand where he was going with the joke, but I guess his kids never got sick when he was a plant employee. Mine do, and fortunately they get all our attention.

In general lines the plant seems to work like a clock, small jams in the line were announced in LED boards all over the place and quickly solved. When we were there the goal of producing 90 XJs was reached by 3:00 PM, the plant produces one complete XJ cars every four minutes.

The JIT production works with only two hours worth of stock for cars, all of which are transported outside and inside the plant by DHL employees (not Jaguar employees), right up to the robot “feed” racks. Plus the focus on value added activities and the corresponding incentive, all make sense if Jaguar is to remain competitive in this century.

However I suspect sooner or later current owner TATA is going to move the factories to India sooner than later as the land and labour there are 3 to 5 times cheaper.

There is no doubt Jaguar has been carried into this century

competitive environment by previous owner Ford Motor Co who introduced automation and JIT production in a 10 years transformation and by new owner TATA (biggest India multinational - diversified into everything) who is focusing on improving efficiencies. Without them Jaguar would have followed the dinosaur route most other british brands took.

The new XJ is an all aluminum car, 90% recyclable, all the parts are riveted with aircraft technology that creates a water sealed rivet, not a single point of soldering... The cars are lighter - I lifted a door that was about 10 Kg, faster, more efficient in terms of mileage per gallon, and inside they feel extremely cozy and well built, with the familiar leather and small touches of wood, a few kilos of electronics and 3 miles of cables complete the modern Jaguar automation experience.

All this said the lack the romance and craftsmanship of my old XJ6 Vanden Plas, the leather and the massive wood panels are not the same, as the company has turned more and more efficient in terms of cost. Jaguar didn’t have to compete with Japanese companies back at the beginning of the 80’s.

Even though the car is lighter and solid and obviously safer, it doesn’t convey the same panzer tank ruggedness the old car does, I guess plastic bumpers and deforming sections never do.

They are building great cars but I’ll stick to my old XJ6 Series III anytime.

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