A worker reaches up to fasten a cable on the inside front end of the BMW 7 Series chassis hanging over her. The dangling body is moving along slowly on the elevated assembly line here at one of the German automaker’s biggest factories.
She’s keeping up with the line easily, but the overall pace is deceptively quick. A new car rolls off production every 83 seconds.
A few feet away, a co-worker prepares for the next vehicle, a 530e plug-in hybrid. He aligns a console holding the car’s large battery beneath its body and then pulls a lever, prompting a machine to lift the unit into its housing.
Finished with her previous task, the woman comes over to help with some more cables. When the duo are done, their car will move on to receive doors and wheels courtesy of large, orange-coloured robot arms further down the line.
Their next job, and the one after that, will be on another vehicle with a combustion engine. Sooner or later, another hybrid will come along. But it won’t matter – they can handle different cars with varying powertrains without missing a beat.
Hybridized production is the operative concept in BMW’s new manufacturing strategy. The automaker recently reconfigured this 51-year-old factory in the small town of Dingolfing, about 100 kilometres northwest of company headquarters in Munich, to deal with a changing market.
The company expects to sell 140,000 electrified vehicles this year, up from 100,000 in 2017. Pure electric vehicles will soon be added to the Dingolfing line to complement the plug-in hybrids already being produced. BMW is prepared for combustion, hybrid and battery electric vehicles, but it isn’t sure what that overall mix is going to look like.
“It’s like a bottle of ketchup,” says plant director Andreas Wendt. “When you shake it, you know some will come out, you just don’t know when or how much.”
Remodelling of the Dingolfing factory, which employs 18,000 people alongside 2,000 robots, began in 2013. The first hybrid rolled off the line in 2016, while BMW’s upcoming full-battery EV, the iNext, will begin production here in 2021, joining the current slate of 5, 6 and 7 Series, plus the 8 Series that starts this year.
The company expects plug-in hybrids and battery EVs to comprise between 15 and 25 per cent of the overall market by 2025, which is close to other estimates in its conservatism. Analysis firm Fitch Ratings, for one, believes around 10 million battery-powered EVs will be sold by 2025, which would represent about 10 per cent of all vehicles.
BMW executives say they can double EV production at the Dingolfing plant in a year, should market demand justify it.
That flexibility will be key because it means the company will be able to fully utilize existing factories without having to build new ones devoted to specific powertrains. It also means plants can run uninterrupted without having to shut down to reconfigure for different vehicles.
“We have to preserve the investments we have already taken,” says Dirk Hilgenberg, senior vice-president of production systems, technical planning, tool shop and plant construction. “This allows us to breathe within a certain range.”
Executives also believe consumers will ultimately see benefits from hybridized production. Rather than waiting months for a specific order, the flexible system is intended to deliver faster just-in-time results, meaning less wait time for customers.
“We can react quicker to market demand,” says BMW board member Oliver Zipse. “With that platform ready and available, we can fit cars quicker and produce them faster.”
The flexible system isn’t intended to last forever, Zipse says, but it’s a practical approach for the time being. BMW will have to reassess the strategy should EV sales take off faster than expected.
That could mean reverting to single-purpose factories if EVs ever account for the majority of car sales, although that isn’t expected to happen within the next decade.
A number of factors, including the availability of charging stations, need to fall into place before EV sales really jump. Electric vehicles also sell at a premium compared to regular combustion cars, which is unlikely to change for at least the next five years, Zipse says.
The cost of batteries will come down over time, but any savings realized there will be put back into extending their range and capacity, at least for the time being.
“Batteries don’t follow natural industrialization trends,” he says.
Industry experts believe the hybridized production strategy, which a number of automakers are adopting, is prudent. Toyota, for example, has been producing combustion and hybrid Lexus vehicles at its factory in Cambridge, Ont., and is in the process of doing the same there with its RAV4 line.
“It’s a practical approach when you look at the cost of what it takes to put a plant in place,” says Ross McKenzie, managing director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research. “If that’s in place, you’re going to have an assembler ready to meet demand.”
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.