Secretive BMW plant is building iNext electric SUV prototypes

BMW is keeping the details of its iNext electric SUV a secret until sometime next year, but on Tuesday the automaker gave a rare look inside the production facility that’s responsible for building prototypes of the upcoming plug-in utility vehicle.

BMW’s Pilot Plant is used to transition between development and production for up to 6 vehicle projects at once, but right now the facility is focused on creating a streamlined assembly process so that the iNext can be built at one of the automaker’s regular factories. Specifically, the Pilot Plant is working on a new bonding technology for the iNext, as well as systems to measure the vehicle’s build quality. The plant is also working out ways to thoroughly test the iNext’s array of self-driving sensors.

The iNext will be the first BMW model to use what’s known as rotary bonding. That process uses heat generated from piercing aluminum with high-strength steel to meld the two materials together, forming an extremely strong bond. The Pilot Plant will build up to 100 iNext prototypes using the new bonding technique.

In order to ensure the bodies-in-white produced with the new rotary bonding technology are up to BMW’s standards, the Pilot Plant devised a new optical scanning process used for taking vehicle measurements. The new tech relies on laser radar and eliminates the need to physically place measurement points on a vehicle’s body, thereby shortening the inspection process.

All iNext bodies-in-white are also sent to a virtual measuring room where they are examined by a high-resolution scanner. The high-tech scanning method can instantly take measurements of various vehicle parts and automatically compare them to their original CAD data.

Finally, the Pilot Plant uses four robots to X-ray a completed iNext prototype to analyze the internals of the entire vehicle. The tomography tech, which can pick up objects approximately the same width as a human hair, is used to inspect new materials and bonding techniques. Previously, a vehicle had to be disassembled to view that kind of detail.

Even the ergonomics of building the iNext are being examined. The Pilot Plant studies virtual models of workers building the iNext, ensuring easy access to the various parts that need fitting.

The techniques pioneered by the Pilot Plant will be transferred to the iNext’s regular production facility. BMW hasn’t officially said where the iNext will be built, but the company has hinted that it could be produced at its Dingolfing plant.

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