"You don’t hear us, you don’t smell us, you don’t see us" -
A visit at BMW plant in Regensburg, where economy belongs together with ecology.
You feel the crunch of the gravel beneath your shoes, you hear the birds chirping in the trees, and the first flowers are already peeking out of the many flowerbeds and on the grass – it smells like spring. During a walk across the grounds of the BMW plant in Regensburg, you might expect a lot of things, but certainly not that more than 1000 cars are built here every day. “What we wanted from the very beginning was to build a plant that fits in perfectly with the environment and to be a good neighbor,” said Josef Schloder and he knows what he’s talking about. As the environmental protection and work safety manager for the company, he has been one of the people responsible since 1987 for ensuring that this was always the case, despite all the additions that have been made to the plant and the increases in production capacity. A green belt around the entire 345-acre lot, noise insulation walls, a biological exhaust air filtration system, a commuter bus network with 35 lines and a block heat and power plant of its own – what’s it all for? “Since the plant started production in 1986, there has not been a single complaint from the neighboring inhabitants,” says Schloder, and he’s proud of it.
Nevertheless, this automotive manufacturer is not going to all this effort just to be a good neighbor. Sustainable business management has always been a part of the BMW Group strategy, and not just since the start of the climate debate last year. “Economy has always gone hand-in-hand with ecology here. ‘Environmental protection’, for example, was already introduced as a group function in 1973 and there’s now an environmental officer like me in every one of the 23 production locations that belong to the BMW Group worldwide,” reports Schloder. In 2001, the company also signed the United Nations “Cleaner Production” environmental declaration and agreed to make preventative environmental protection a mission for their own production processes. “But Clean Production doesn’t start in the foundry or the press shop,” Josef Schloder knows. “Even our designers and constructing engineers already set the course for greater resource efficiency and improved environmental protection with their careful selection of materials.” In addition, the 20,000 individual parts that each vehicle is made of are not all directly produced by the BMW Group, which is why the company also demands a lot of its suppliers: they are required to make sure that their parts and components are designed according to state-of-the-art technology so that emissions are reduced to a minimum during the production, utilization and recycling phases.
The actual production process begins in the press shop. This is where 220 tons of steel are processed in a gigantic press to produce doors, roofs and chassis every day. The noise level inside is enormous, it’s warm and the floor does tend to vibrate sometimes. Directly in front of the plant gates, however, the visitors squint in the springtime sun and don’t hear a thing. “In order to protect employees, neighbors and the environment from noise emissions, the press shop has been completely soundproofed and the press is installed on its own foundation so that the vibrations are not transmitted to the outside,” says Schloder. The parts that are completed in the press shop are then immediately transported to the next station, i.e. to the car-body shop.
This is where special robots put the pieces of sheet metal together to form a “body-in-white”. Then, it’s off to the paint shop. On the way there, we also pass by the factory’s own block heat and power plant. Based on the principle of combined heat and power, four large natural gas engines and a gas as well as a steam turbine generate a third of the entire energy that is needed by the factory. With a total efficiency of more than 80 percent, the combined heat-and-power plant is much more efficient that conventional forms of energy generation, where only about 35 percent of the energy is actually used. Josef Schloder knows why BMW’s heat-and-power plant is more efficient: “As one example, we use the heat that results from the generation of energy to produce cold.” What sounds like a paradox at first turns out to be an exceptionally good trade-off: the excess heat produced during the generation of heat and power in the summer months is not simply dissipated as usual in cooling towers, it’s used in absorption refrigerators where it produces cold. The cold water produced is then used for the air-conditioning system and to cool specific production processes, in the paint shop, for example.
Once arrived in the paint shop, there is still a lot to see, but no unpleasant smells. Josef Schloder explains why: “We use water-based paints in all the BMW Group factories. In addition, the last of the four layers of paint is applied in powder clear paint technology in the factories in Regensburg, Leipzig and Dingolfing. This layer requires neither water nor solvents and the material used leaves virtually no residue. This means that we have been able to reduce any annoying smell emissions to an absolute minimum.” The low-solvent water-based paint and the powder clear paint are both electromagnetically charged and strongly attracted to the neutral car body so that none of the paint is lost and no unnecessary waste is produced. The result of these efforts: During the past ten years, the BMW Group has been able to cut the amount of the solvents used in the company by more than one half. And the consumption of water in the plant in Regensburg has also been significantly reduced by the introduction of powder clear paint. “However, the real competence center for sustainable water management is in the BMW factory in Steyr, where engine manufacturing is one of the main processes,” the environmental officer continues. This is where cooling-lubricant emulsions and wash or rinse water is indispensable. Despite permanent wastewater treatment, it was still necessary to replace these fluids at regular intervals. But, since 2007, production wastewater has been reused in the engine factory in northern Austria. Thanks to the new two-stage treatment of the wastewater using a combination of different membrane technologies, a very high degree of water purity can now be achieved and the water can be redirected back into the production cycle. All in all, this saves a total of 30 million liters of water a year – which is the amount that a village with 750 inhabitants would use within the same amount of time.
Back in Regensburg, our painted car body has begun to take on more shape. It takes about 100 assembly steps to create a complete BMW, with customization as ordered, and then there’s the “wedding” to finally puts the breath of life into the vehicle. That’s what the carmakers call the meeting of the body, the chassis and the engine. “We get the engines virtually from next door, from the BMW plants in Munich and Steyr,” Schloder goes on. Individual components in the engine also come from Lower Bavaria: In Landshut, cylinder heads and crankcases are manufactured in five different casting processes for all different kinds of BMW vehicles – from motorcycles to Formula 1 cars. An enormous show of strength for man and machine: there are high temperatures in the foundry and it’s very loud. Liquid metal is poured into huge dies and red-hot steel tempered in blast furnaces. So-called sand cores are used in order to fill the hollow spaces in the dies. And to make the sand cores, it is often necessary to use resin-binding agents that produce unpleasant odors. Not in Landshut. Since 2006, virtually odor- and emission-free mineral-based binding agents are used to reduce the percentage of organic elements in the emissions by 98 percent and to create the first really “stink-free” foundry in the world.
In Regensburg, the wedding is now complete. As the vehicle successfully completed the production process in the testing station at the end, a completely finished BMW roll off the production belts after 24 hours. And what happens after that? “Even then, we still try to be as environmentally conscious as possible. That’s why two thirds of our cars leave the factory on their ways to the car dealerships or the seaports on the rails,” confirms Josef Schloder. And that also reduces the emissions and noise that would have been produced by a lot of truck traffic. The environment appreciates it. And so do the neighbors.
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