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BMW’s New Factory Robots Can Paint Complex Designs on Cars Without Any Time-Consuming Masking

One day BMW owners may be able to choose custom designs, and not just the color of their new car.

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As the automotive assembly line improved and modernized over the past century, it opened up new possibilities for new vehicles to be customized by drivers. BMW is taking the next step with customization with a newly developed robot that can quickly paint vehicles with complex designs like a giant inkjet printer.

If, while skipping through the channels, you’ve ever landed on one of the many reality shows that involve upgrading and customizing cars or other vehicles, then you’ve probably seen the extensive work that goes into creating a custom paint job. It’s a time-consuming process that involves applying different paint colors layer-by-layer, with extensive masking in-between to ensure that colors painted onto one area of a vehicle don’t end up on another. It’s laborious and expensive, and it’s why factory robots typically only paint vehicles in a single color.

Luxury vehicle makers strive to provide their customers with as many customization options as possible, however, so BMW worked with another German company, Duerr, to create a new factory robot that can paint two-tone finishes, or create elaborate designs on a vehicle, without any in-between masking required. The robot’s called the EcoPaintJet Pro and instead of a traditional paint sprayer on the business end, it uses a contraption that’s not unlike the print head on your inkjet printer. Jets of ink, as small as half a millimeter in thickness, are sprayed through an orifice plate which creates defined edges as it hits the vehicle. When combined with the precision movements of the EcoPaintJet Pro’s robotic arm, intricate designs can be created with transitions between colors that look as crisp as if masking techniques, such as tape or stencils, had been used.

At the BMW Dingolfing plant in Munich, the new robot and paint technique is being piloted on 19 new BMW M4 Coupés that roll out of the factory with a special two-tone finish featuring M4 branding on the hood and tailgate that will be used by the company. Eventually, BMW wants to expand the use of the EcoPaintJet Pro bot so its customers have more affordable options when it comes to customizing the appearance of their new vehicles, but there are other advantages to the new technology.

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The precision of the applied paint means there’s no overspray—excess paint that ends up inside a painting room that has to be cleared away and disposed of, resulting in wasted materials and the use of harsh chemicals. BMW also believes the EcoPaintJet Pro will result in lower energy consumption as it will change how the sealed and highly ventilated painting rooms in its factories operate. “Since paint separation is no longer required, the amount of air needed is also lower. At around 7,000 operating hours, this results in energy savings of more than 6,000 megawatt-hours and reduces the carbon footprint by nearly 2,000 tonnes per year.”