BMW has seen the future and it’s now – with i3s and i8s on its assembly line, writes Kevin Hackett.
The outstanding fibre of BMW’s i3 and i8
Carbon fibre truly is a wonderful material. Used in countless applications where a high strength-to-weight ratio is required, it has been embraced by manufacturers of everything from golf clubs to yacht hulls, but the automobile industry is where it’s possibly made the most profound difference.
It’s lighter than steel yet stronger, so it was an obvious material for use in the construction of racing cars. McLaren first used it in the construction of its MP4/1 Formula One car in 1981, which had a carbon fibre monocoque. John Watson, a driver for McLaren in the 1981 season, was involved in a horrific accident which destroyed his car but he survived because of the strength of the material he was surrounded by. Hercules Aerospace, the company that supplied the carbon to McLaren, keeps the wreck on display even now so visitors can see firsthand just how important it can be for drivers and passengers alike.
In the decades since, use of carbon fibre in car production has become ubiquitous. But until now its use has eluded mass production because it’s still incredibly expensive and labour intensive to use in forming panels and components that could otherwise be formed from steel or aluminium alloys. Yet its importance in reducing weight – the sworn enemy of efficiency – has never been ignored by manufacturers intent on making their cars more environmentally friendly. To get carbon fibre to the masses would require some radical new thinking and approaches to production and BMW believes it has found the solution.
When the company first displayed its i3 and i8 concept cars at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2008, they were still, in the eyes of the majority, nothing more than flights of fancy. But they’re being built, right before my eyes, in a stunning new factory at its Leipzig plant in eastern Germany and, from what I can see, the company is onto something major. Car production as we know it may never be the same again.
BMW has been making cars at Leipzig for many years but the halls I’m being guided around are entirely new and dedicated to just one thing: making the world’s most sustainable automobiles. And the factory itself is, the company claims, the world’s most sustainable production plant. It’s entirely carbon neutral, despite the fact that carbon fibres are used to produce its cars, and by that I mean the electricity used here is generated by huge windmills dotted around the site, while anything at all possible is recycled and reused. Waste is the enemy and this factory is doing all it can to minimise it.
This is all very worthy and, to many car fanatics, perhaps a bit dull. But the sheer investment made by BMW in this facility proves to me that eco-friendly motoring is here to stay and it will be heading in our direction very soon. In fact, in the first week of May I will get to drive a production version of the i8 supercar and it will be available throughout the UAE before the year is out. As Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a changin’, and we might as well start getting our heads around it.
We won’t be getting the i3 city car, though. Our region isn’t ready for an all-electric runabout. But it might be one day and the i8 should help raise awareness here of the benefits to be had in driving a car that’s kinder to the planet. The i8’s production is just getting started, while the little i3 has been rolling off the lines for the past six months at a rate of about 80 cars a day. BMW has been caught a little off guard, though, and demand is such that there is a waiting list stretching out many months. And that simply will not do.
“Production will increase very soon,” says my guide. “It is too early to give any details but we will be able to meet the demands and increase the rate of supply. But this is an entirely new way of building cars and we have learnt a great deal over the past couple of years. These lessons will enable us to plan more effectively for future models.”
The build processes I’m seeing before me are mind-blowing. Yesterday I attended BMW’s annual financial press conference, where the board of directors addressed media assembled from all over the planet to talk numbers. And it’s obvious the company is going great guns, making huge profits, paying huge dividends to investors and spending huge amounts in making itself future proof. And part of that future proofing is right here, in a factory where the usual sights and sounds of car production are mostly absent. No banging, no welding, no grinding – just the whizzing of 160 robots working in perfect unison to form the panels and parts that make this incredible small car.
The i3 is entirely battery powered while the astonishing i8 we’ll be getting is a plug-in hybrid, meaning it can be driven harder and for longer before it needs a recharge. But one thing the two distinctly different models share is the way in which they are pieced together.
Carbon fibre is delivered to the Leipzig factory in the form of huge mats that look like thin carpet underlay. These mats contain a binding agent, and are preformed using ultrasound to activate the binding agent and form an approximate shape. Each body side of an i3 uses nine carbon fibre panels. Most of the excess material lost after trimming is reused and reformed into panels to make the i3’s roof, which doesn’t need to be load-bearing.
For the main body panels, the preformed mats are placed into machine moulds and injected with resin at a pressure of 1,160 pounds per square inch and heated to a temperature of 100°C to set. The panels are then trimmed and cleaned, with the required fixing holes cut using ultra-high-pressure water jets. Robots then assemble the body using 160 metres of weatherproof and temperature-stable polyurethane glue for each car.
“These cars need to be able to withstand enormous temperature fluctuations,” my guide explains, “and there are a number of materials used in the construction, all of which expand and contract at different rates. So the adhesive used to keep everything together needed to be flexible enough in all temperatures for the car to remain entirely stable. This is what the robots are applying to the panels.”
The entire factory is spotless and cleanliness is so vital that workers are required to wear gloves at all times – not to protect their skin, but to prevent contaminating any of these parts because the sweat from a single finger can ruin a glued joint. It’s this zero tolerance for even the slightest error that means robots are taking care of duties instead of actual people. My guide says the production process, while twice the speed it was a decade ago, is still slower than traditional construction methods. But the gap is narrowing. “We will soon be just as fast – we have no need for a press shop or a paint shop and these new methods will allow us to become even more efficient over time.”
BMW employs 100,000 people in Germany alone, and some of them are seen on the factory floor, mingling with their robotic counterparts, changing the huge tooling required for forming the parts that make up the i3, keeping an eye on the machines. Thankfully we humans do still have our uses.
The robots place the newly glued panels onto conveyor belts and off they go to the next stages. Only the inner shells of these cars are made using carbon fibre, the actual outer body being formed from tough plastic panels that are eventually painted using new techniques that I’m not allowed to witness. But these panels are also light and strong and, crucially for this region, bounce back into shape after minor knocks. “The occupants are protected by the carbon cell,” my guide continues, “and more than 95 per cent of typical accidents affect only the outer skin panels, which can be easily replaced. If the carbon fibre structure is damaged then this can also be repaired using techniques we have developed. This keeps repair costs down and these cars are recognised by the insurance industry as being very inexpensive to repair, which benefits us all.”
Near the end of the line, there is a “marriage” of the “life module” (the outer shell and body) and the “drive module” (the electrical powertrain and chassis) and soon the cars are driven out, in complete silence, before testing and delivery.
As I walk out of the factory building and into the sunshine, I see i3s being charged at their stations and I’m struck by how ordinary that sight will soon become for motorists around the world. As a barometer of the way we as a species are changing, BMW has invested the equivalent of Dh2 billion in this facility and the company simply would not make that sort of commitment if it believed, even for a second, that this wasn’t the future of mass vehicle production.
This Weekend’s cover story shows that Volkswagen is thinking along similar lines – that efficiency is the way forward – but BMW has stolen a march on everyone else. While the i3 and i8 were still being displayed as concept vehicles, this place was being built under the radar. That it’s in full swing now and struggling to keep up with customer demand should tell us all that the car will be around for some time yet. It might not be made from metal or powered by a thirsty V8 but the car’s future appears safe and sound and that should give us all reason for cheer.
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