The BMW i Series production plant in Leipzig sets a benchmark for sustainability.

The huge manufacturing halls are surprisingly quiet. No pounding machinery, no sputtering welding robots. Glass containers full of olive leaves and natural fibres on the gallery evoke the feeling of a health spa rather than a car factory. Which is precisely the effect BMW is aiming for as its new production facility gears up to tackle the challenges of the future. The electric-driven i Series is manufactured here in the south of Leipzig – in a state-of-the-art laboratory of automotive engineering that already turns out more than 100 cars a day.

A new direction in vehicle manufacturing

The BMW i3 was conceived as a car for the future and the entire production process was redesigned accordingly. Materials, processes and drive systems were all subjected to critical scrutiny. The vehicles incorporate a mix of sustainable materials, such as leather seats tanned with olive leaves instead of chemicals, and insulation and panelling made from kenaf fibres. But the real star of the show is carbon fibre. Millions of fibres are processed to form the materials used in the passenger compartment of these compact electric cars. That is partly the reason why noise levels in the plant are so low: whereas other car factories reverberate to the sound of welding robots and mechanical cutting presses, at the Leipzig plant components are bonded together without a sound, while high pressure water cutting systems likewise operate almost silently. Robotic orange arms assemble the car body piece by piece before it is glued and bolted to the chassis during the “marriage”. The widespread use of plastic and carbon fibre makes the body light enough to compensate for the weight of the batteries in the floorpan of the vehicle.

BMW has devised a host of innovative practices to ensure the new energy-efficient range is manufactured in a sustainable way. The paint shop processes use around 70 per cent less water than standard, for example, while energy requirements are only half those of a conventional car plant. The energy-intensive manufacturing of carbon fibre is carried out in the US using hydroelectric power, and the i3 and i8 assembly lines run solely on electricity generated by four wind turbines on the company’s premises.

Putting the brakes on consumption

Careful use of resources doesn’t make for a bland driving experience, however. The fully electric-driven BMW i3 covers the ground swiftly and quietly, with a range of 160 kilometres, enough for the everyday needs of most drivers. A fuel-driven range extender delivers enough power for a further 140 kilometres if required. The more athletic side of the i Series is embodied in the i8 sports car, ten of which roll off the assembly line here every day. This plug-in hybrid allows 100% electric driving up to a range of 35 kilometres, but the real strength of the electric drivetrain lies in the intelligent support delivered by the three-cylinder engine. The two systems together produce 362 bhp and an average fuel consumption of 2.5 litres per 100 kilometres – surprisingly economical for such a sporting vehicle.