Market competitive design and production of electric powered motor vehicles has been a challenge for the global automotive industry. Challenges have included the high material cost of batteries as well as the energy consumption of the vehicles themselves.

Supply Chain Matters recently read news reports that BMW AG has launched production of the carmaker’s new Project i electric automobiles, its first ultra-light family of city focused vehicles constructed of carbon fiber and reinforced plastic materials. The BMW i-car family of products will be a combination of all-electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles constructed of these more sophisticated materials.

The material concepts are so innovative that BMW wisely invested in a $530 million new Project i production facility in Leipzig Germany that according to a report published in the Wall Street Journal, (paid subscription or free metered view) represents an effort to reinvent mass car production in a far smaller factory and supply chain footprint.

The carbon-fiber plastic skins are supplied by a joint venture with SGL Group in the United States.  The car’s body consists of 30 percent fewer parts that a traditional body made of steel, but requires far more sophisticated production processes.  That includes stacking sheets of material followed by molding and heating to form door frames and fenders. Because the car construction materials are so light, less expensive robots and conveyors can be deployed for supporting line output. Instead of a high concentration of air-powered ratchet guns, there are glue guns.  A specialized painting line generates no wastewater and costs one-fifth the cost of a traditional steel body paint line. Overall production requires 70 percent less water and 50 percent less energy than a regular car factory, positively contributing to supply chain sustainability goals. The factory’s overall noise footprint is far quieter for workers because of the overall reduction in manufacturing complexity.

Innovative products require innovative processes and in the case of BMW, a far different and more holistic approach to automobile fabrication and assembly while delivering on social and environmental sustainability goals. Continued challenges in reducing the material costs of batteries are still evident but these new innovations in materials and fabrication could prove noteworthy.

According to reports, BMW has priced the all-electric i3 city car at $41,350, about the same range as its mid-sized vehicles.  How consumers respond is, of course, the next chapter, but rather than a factory retrofit, BMW’s efforts in dramatically changing how electric powered vehicles are designed and produced bear watching in the months to come.