BMW Tripling SGL Venture Capacity for Carbon-Fiber Lead

Bayerische Motoren Werke AG plans to triple production capacity of carbon fiber in a $200 million expansion that will make a factory in Washington state the world’s largest for the lightweight material.

The project at the plant in Moses Lake, part of a joint venture with SGL Carbon SE, will be completed by early 2015, Munich-based BMW and its Wiesbaden, Germany-based partner said today in a joint statement. The headcount will more than double to 200 employees from 80 currently.

BMW, the world’s largest maker of luxury vehicles, is pioneering the use of carbon fiber in mass-produced autos, deploying it in the i3 electric city car. The material, which is lighter and stronger than steel, was previously limited to high-end sports cars because it’s costly and difficult to work with. The effort, aimed at cutting emissions, represents the biggest shift in carmaking since at least the 1980s, when the first all-aluminum frames were made.

“We will be able to produce the ultra-lightweight high-tech material also for other model series, at competitive costs and in large quantities,” Klaus Draeger, BMW’s head of purchasing and supplies, said in the statement.

The plant, which began operating in 2011, supplies carbon fiber for both the i3 and the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car. BMW and SGL have already invested $100 million at the Moses Lake site, whose current capacity of about 3,000 tons of carbon fiber a year will jump to 9,000 tons in the medium term.

BMW has raised daily production of the i3 at its plant in Leipzig, Germany, by 43 percent to 100 vehicles. The new output rate translates to about 20,000 cars for the full year, almost twice as much as BMW’s initial sales forecast.

Cutting Weight

BMW started rolling out the i3 in November and will begin bringing the i8 to market in June. Both vehicles have a carbon-fiber chassis to cut weight and improve fuel efficiency. BMW Chief Executive Officer Norbert Reithofer told journalists earlier this week he sees “room” for an additional model between the i3 and i8.

The carmaker said in February that it’s building a second production hall with SGL at Moses Lake to prepare for an anticipated rise in demand. The companies said today that two lines being commissioned in mid-2014 will double capacity to 6,000 tons a year.

Audi AG, the world’s second-largest premium automaker, is adding plug-in hybrid versions of already existing models as the reach of purely battery-powered vehicles remains a concern for many car buyers. The division of Volkswagen AG, Europe’s largest automaker, has largely restricted the use of carbon fiber to cars of its Lamborghini high-performance sister brand.

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