Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW)'s bid to save its cars from potential extinction starts with hundreds of thousands of fine white strands snaking upwards in a production hall in ruralWashington.
Looped through an almost mile-long course, what looks like the world's thinnest rice noodles will be stretched, toasted and eventually scorched black to create carbon fiber -- a material thinner than human hair and yet tougher than steel.
BMW will use the sleek, black filaments for the passenger frame of the i3 electric car, which goes on sale at dealers inGermany tomorrow and around the world in the coming months. It's the first effort to mass produce a car made largely from carbon fiber and represents the biggest shift in automobile production since at least the 1980s when the first all-aluminum car frames were made.
The strategy started taking shape six years ago, as Norbert Reithofer, then the newly appointed chief executive officer, examined trends affecting the industry and concluded that increased environmental awareness would likely prompt tougher emissions regulations that could make the future of autobahn cruisers like the 5-Series sedan unsustainable.
"Looking forward to 2020, we saw threats to our business model," Chief Financial Officer Friedrich Eichiner, who was head of strategic planning at the time, said in an interview in his sparsely furnished office in BMW's landmark four-cylinder headquarters building in Munich. "We had to find a way to bring models like the 6-Series, 7-Series and X5 into the future."
For BMW to continue to sell cars that live up to the company's "ultimate driving machine" claim, the manufacturer needed to offset those emissions with a viable electric vehicle for growing cities, where more and more potential customers would live. That was the start of the i3.
At the time, electric cars had the reputation of being sluggish because of the heavy battery needed to hold a charge capable of moving the car at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) -- the range considered necessary for daily use. That meant the car needed to be lighter to reduce the size and cost of the power pack and improve handling. The lightest and strongest material available is carbon fiber.
There are a number of interesting points in this article which the introduction above only begins to touch on. For instance, why build a $100 million plant at Moses Lake Washington, a little town of approximately 20,000 people? Well, the local utility charges only 3 cents per kilowatt hour for hydro-power to run the plant's energy-hungry ovens and furnaces. Bloomberg says this is less than one-fifth the cost of fuel in Germany. The town is also also appears to be reasonably close to a port.
What about qualified employees? In a real sign of the times for many industries, the factory is described as "nearly autonomous". It requires fewer than a dozen people to monitor the machines and open new boxes of the acrylic thread from Japan that is used.
Nevertheless the production process for carbon fibre is still expensive so BMW is aiming to reduce costs by becoming a major supplier in a joint venture with SGL Carbon SE in Germany, in which it has a significant investment. BMW's share price is still consolidating gains following its significant upward breakout in September but over the medium term I would give the upside the benefit of the doubt provided the share remains above €70. An Autonomy, BMW currently yields just over 3% and the current and estimated PERs are just over 10. SGL currently looks a lot less interesting, albeit recovering from the lower side of its broad range. However, it currently has no earnings and yields only 0.74%