BMW Group announced that the auto giant has begun small-scale production of the iX5, touted by the company as the world’s first “sports activity vehicle” powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The model features a number of components produced at BMW’s Additive Manufacturing (AM) Campus.
BMW currently plans for this initial, limited production run to be completed by next spring, at which point the iX5 will be released in “selected regions”: not for sale or lease, but solely as a “test fleet” intended for exhibition of the underlying technology. Although, for now, its final production will take place at BMW’s Munich Research and Innovation Center (FIZ), the iX5 is nonetheless the result of a decidedly global supply chain: BMW Group Plant Spartanburg (South Carolina) manufactures the base vehicles, whose design is derived from the platform of the X5.
In a press release announcing the iX5’s first production run, Frank Weber, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Development, commented, “…[Hydrogen] has a key role to play as we progress towards climate neutrality. …Fuel cells don’t require any critical raw materials such as cobalt, lithium or nickel either, so by investing in this type of drive system we are also strengthening the geopolitical resilience of the BMW Group.” Milan Nedeljković, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Production, added, “Production of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen and the BMW-developed fuel cell systems demonstrates our supreme flexibility and unrivaled know-how in the field of small-scale manufacture.”
Currently, there are still only two commercially available vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo. Nevertheless, BMW is one of the most longstanding proponents of hydrogen-powered vehicles, having released two hydrogen concept cars — the 7-Series in the early 2000s, and 2015’s BMW 5-Series GT Hydrogen — prior to its work on the iX5.
Moreover, BMW and Toyota announced earlier this year that they have entered into a partnership for developing the technology for hydrogen vehicles, and BMW sources the fuel cells for the fuel cell stack used in the iX5 from Toyota. The Japanese powerhouse has also been increasingly public about its longstanding support for AM this year. Thus, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that, beyond jointly developing new technologies, BMW and Toyota are also collaborating on the advanced manufacturing supply chains that would need to be deployed, in order for those technologies to be scaled up.
This is precisely the context in which AM has the most significant role to play, for the automotive sector in particular, and for heavy industries, in general. These industries have historically only been profitable to the extent that they leverage their creation of and control over unrivaled economies-of-scale.
With that in mind, a company like BMW truly cannot afford to risk failure on mass-produced output at this point in its history. To have any realistic hope for success on a gambit like hydrogen vehicles, the only viable strategy is a series of limited production runs, with output capacity built up a little bit at a time in response to market demand. Additionally, that has to be done in a way that doesn’t interfere with its existing mass production assembly lines. Owing to this complicated combination of variables, only AM-centered, next generation manufacturing techniques support BMW’s ability to strike the delicate balance required for its hydrogen investments to pay off.
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