BMW’s latest flagship may be the most complex car the company has ever built, but it takes just half the time to assemble than ‘old-fashioned’ cars. How?
The short answer is because of the LifeDrive concept BMW developed for its new i sub-brand of cars. The architecture of the i8 is split into two parts: a passenger cell made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (Life) and an aluminum chassis that comprises the car’s complex mechanical parts (Drive). Built separately and then assembled during the last stages of production, the two modules also help makes the production process considerably less expensive, which perhaps explains why the new coupé will go on sale for a relatively modest $135,700.
The plug-in hybrid BMW i8’s gestation period begins much earlier than that, however. While final assembly happens on BMW’s wind-powered production line at its Leipzig plant, the defining material component – carbon fiber – enters existence at a hydroelectric-powered facility in Moses Lake, Washington.
Carbon fiber strands seven microns thick – less than a fifth the width of a human hair – are bundled together to form rovings before being shipped to Wackersdorf in Germany. Here they are processed into laminates before being cut into shapes that will eventually form the i8’s predatory bodywork.
One of the benefits of carbon fiber reinforced plastic is that it can be conjoined to form much larger single structures than are possible with aluminum or sheet steel. What gives carbon fiber its legendary rigidity and strength, however, is the ‘reinforced plastic’ part. Once the fibers have been arranged into the right shapes, resin is injected at high pressure before hardening takes place in carbon fiber press.
Once the carbon fiber reinforced plastic composite parts are ready they are bonded together in a body shop in Leipzig. This is where the black material begins to resemble a BMW i8, although it will eventually be coated in a thermoplastic outer skin that’s easy to paint and highly corrosion resistant.
While all this is going on a large part of the i8’s hybrid mechanical hardware is being assembled in the UK. Both the heavily turbocharged three-cylinder engine and the powerful electric motor are built in-house by BMW, although the latter originates from the company’s Landshut plant in Germany. The aluminium chassis that hold everything in place is built at the Dingolfing plant by robots applying more than 50 meters of welding seems to each car.
Unlike the smaller i3, the Life and Drive aspects of the i8 are assembled on a single production line in Leipzig. First, the high-voltage lithium-ion battery pack is packaged within the chassis before the drivetrain and transmission are fitted. After leaving the bodyshop, the carbon fiber reinforced plastic Life unit is married to the chassis with bolts at four crucial points selected, BMW says, for optimum strength and stiffness.
As Chris Harris suggested in his review, the BMW i8’s production process, the materials it consists of, and the use of complex plug-in hybrid technology is enough to make even a Porsche 911 look antiquated. BMW says it has sold the entire allocation of the first year of i8 production, which is hardly surprising. As an opening gambit for the sportscar of the future it’s compelling.
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