BMW: Arriving Prepared

BMW pushes flexibility and advanced material composites as the automaker redesigns its future.

By Dan Larson, Lightweighting World Staff

No crystal ball is needed to predict that fundamental changes are coming in the design, engineering, manufacture and marketing of cars and trucks. Indeed, the very concepts of personal transportation and commercial logistics are being challenged at every turn.

With such challenges come uncertainties. This year’s Management Briefing Seminars (MBS) highlighted the uncertainties facing original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and their suppliers as they look for clues at the crossroads of environmental regulations, demographics and technology.

What is clear, however, is the inherent value in vehicle lightweighting through engineering and advanced materials.

Hosted by the Center for Automotive Research each summer in Traverse City, Mich., this year’s MBS event saw speaker after speaker express concern that the industry has reached a turning point. Decisions made today about powertrains, autonomous driving and lightweight materials will determine whether a brand sees success or is consigned to mediocrity, they said.

Among the OEMs, BMW appears to be charting a course that values flexibility as the key to maintaining its leadership in automotive innovation and the production of premium performance vehicles.

When it comes to powertrains, BMW executives acknowledge that the cars of tomorrow will be powered by something other than an internal combustion engine, although there will continue to be demand for high-output, low-emissions gasoline and diesel engines.

When considering tomorrow’s auto power plants, the question isn’t if, it is when.

At this year’s MBS, Florian Schek, head of head of lightweight design and vehicle weight at BMW, acknowledged that the drive for reduced emissions could spell the end of the traditional internal combustion engine and power transmission drivetrain.

Florian Schek

Within the next decade, the industry could see “the end of the powertrains as we know them,” Schek said. “What we don’t know is how long it will take to transform.”

Future Proof Platforms

The company hopes to address such fundamental uncertainty by building new levels of flexibility into its assembly lines.

By integrating the capability to rapidly shift from one drivetrain to another for the same vehicle platform on the same assembly line, BMW can satisfy demand while avoiding idle time.

“Nobody knows how many electric vehicles you’ll sell five years from now,” said BMW CEO Harald Krueger. “How many plug-in hybrids, how many combustion engines will you sell? The only answer is creating the flexibility to deliver all three.”

In addition to designing new assembly systems, BMW is developing “future proof” platforms that can accept electric powertrains, combustion engines and hybrids.

BMW’s X3 crossover and 3 Series sedans are said to be the first models that will be available in all three drivetrains and under the company’s CLAR cluster architecture, assembled at the same plant.

The company anticipates a capacity to produce “a battery-electric right after diesel right after a hybrid on the same assembly line,” according to Oliver Zipse, a member of the BMW board of management. “That’s the way to re-spond with flexibility because we don’t know the demand.”

As a result, BMW says it is moving away from dedicated assembly operations such as at Leipzig, Germany. There the company built production systems to produce the i3 electric and i8 plug-in hybrid on separate assembly lines from the lines for the high-volume 1 and 2 Series cars.

Instead, BMW is already designing systems at plants such as at Spartanburg, S.C., where it will assemble the X5 cross-over with all three powertrains. The addition of expanding powertrain assembly options to the existing X3 through X6 crossover lines is also planned for Spartanburg, the company said.

Earlier this year, BMW announced plans to redesign the Leipzig plant to add flexibility and expand production capacity.

Read the rest of the story in the September/October issue of Lightweighting World.

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