BMW Takes Multi-Modal Route to Manufacturing

The Munich plant is now configured to build ICE, hybrid, electric, and hydrogen fuel-cell models on a single assembly line.

BMW engineers say their company’s multi-modal, flexible manufacturing strategy can better react to changing consumer tastes, supply-chain snafus or other unforeseen events. If buyers clamor for more EVs, or another model cools off, BMW can adjust production on-the-fly. (BMW)

BMW’s Munich factory remains the fertile root of a century of manufacturing, including its first R32 motorcycle in 1923. But the Bavarian automaker’s oldest assembly site is transforming into a modern test of its long-view strategy: That customers who’ve been buying IC-engine vehicles for 100 years aren’t all going to switch overnight.

To create the iFactory, virtual modeling helped optimize floor space for the tooling and automation. BMW used NVIDIA's Omniverse platform’s factory planning tool to integrate various planning data and applications. (BMW)

At the Munich plant — flanked by the engine-shaped “four-cylinder” headquarters tower and futuristic BMW Welt museum and customer-delivery center — BMW recently showed media its reimagined “iFactory.” This lean, green and digitized environment can build ICE, hybrid, electric or even hydrogen fuel-cell models on a single assembly line. That master plan includes a car and battery factory in Debrecen, Hungary, that BMW claims will be the industry’s first CO2-emissions-free plant in 2025, fed entirely by photovoltaic or other renewable electricity.

Prepping for the Neue Klasse

Walking Munich’s squeaky-clean assembly line, SAE Media watched some 2,000 robots hoist, weld or glue components for five different BMW models. One carousel-like machine might boggle Henry Ford himself, feeding steel side rails from multiple models onto a single assembly track. Vehicles roll past worker stations, their bodies canted sideways in mid-air, some exposing the telltale orange cables of electrified cars. These include plug-in hybrid versions of the 3-Series sedan and Touring wagon, but mainly the new i4 electric sedan. Munich is on pace to produce 100,000 i4s in 2023, reaching half the factory’s 200,000-car annual capacity. That aligns neatly with BMW’s forecast of where customers’ heads (and wallets) will be in 2030, when it expects 50% of its global output to be EVs.

That 50-50 calculation stands in contrast to the 100%-EV commitments of some competitors. Luxury brands including Volvo and Cadillac have pledged to build electric cars exclusively by 2030, with Jaguar jumping the gun to 2025.

BMW is also developing skateboard platforms exclusively for EVs, including for eagerly-awaited “Neue Klasse” cars expected in 2025. (The revived Neue Klasse name adorned a ’60s-era BMW that was a notable forerunner of the 5-Series and other modern sport sedans.) Both

Munich and Debrecen will produce Neue Klasse models, powered by BMW’s new Tesla-style, 4595 and 46120 large-format cylindrical batteries; see here. Down the road in Dingolfing, BMW has spent 400 million Euros to integrate production of the sumptuous, scenery-blurring iX electric SUV. But BMW says it has not abandoned investment in ICEs, or platforms that can support a range of powertrains.

H2-powered paint shop

BMW acknowledges the brand has taken heat in some corners for rejecting an all-EV approach, akin to criticism of the ever-cautious Toyota. But executives including Martin Schuster, BMW Group VP for high-voltage batteries, are convinced they’re on the right powertrain track.

“There will be flexibility within the entire BMW range,” Schuster insisted.

BMW is keenly aware the company must serve diverse customers, with diverse use cases, duty cycles and fuel availability, in roughly 120 countries: From Scandinavia and China whose governments are driving EV adoption through regulatory carrots-and-sticks; to nations whose leaders, customers or infrastructures may demand ICE-based solutions for years or decades to come. Even within the U.S., whose nearly 435,000 EV sales in 2021 represented an 83% jump, Californians bought 40% of those cars. An Iowa flyover finds fewer than 3,700 registered EVs in 2021, from all model years combined.

BMW engineers say their company’s flexible manufacturing strategy can better react to changing consumer tastes, supply-chain snafus or other unforeseen events. If buyers clamor for more EVs, or another model cools off, BMW can adjust production on-the-fly. New iFactories should take that fast reaction time to a granular level: Buyers will be able to change orders as little as six days before their car’s scheduled production date, with no delay in delivery.

Developing virtual models in virtual factories is also revolutionizing BMW’s factory planning. During our plant tour, guide Muriel Aichberger said virtual modeling helped squeeze robots — and their fearsome, fast-swinging metallic arms — a few inches closer together, small gains that add up to more capacity in a sprawling plant. The automaker used NVIDIA's Omniverse platform’s factory planning tool to integrate various planning data and applications, engineers said. BMW also expects new EVs, together with major gains in battery efficiency, green manufacturing and material sourcing and recycling, to help trim their cars’ lifetime CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030. Munich’s sparkling new paint shop is powered by hydrogen. The automaker has its own wind farm at its Leipzig, Germany plant, and is sourcing hydropower electricity in Munich and Dingolfing.

Retraining ICE workers

Regarding efficiencies, it’s clear EVs are muscling in on ICE factory turf, and threatening traditional automaking jobs. From a catwalk above, we spy a potentially endangered species: Skilled technicians hand-assembling turbocharged six-cylinder engines for the mighty M3 sedan. In 2024, BMW plans to stop building IC engines in Munich entirely, and convert the space to build EVs.

“This will keep the Munich plant competitive and ensure it remains a forward-looking production site,” said Peter Weber, plant manager. Aichberger, who himself transferred to become a tour guide years ago, said BMW will retrain and reassign as many ICE workers as possible for this brave new world.

Factories, names and styles may change, but Schuster said the business of selling cars has not. Today’s battery-powered cars are more expensive than regular cars, just as a mega-powered M3 costs more than a basic 3-Series. Whether it’s horsepower or electric driving range, BMW must figure out how much customers are willing to pay for new tech and incremental gains.

“That’s still the game, in 2030 or 2035,” said Schuster the battery VP.