Building A Blueprint To Scale Electric Vehicle Manufacturing
Co-Founder and CEO of Group14 Technologies, a battery materials company developing silicon-carbon composite material for lithium-ion markets
More and more, the strategic conversations of global automakers today involve the inevitable shift to the battery-powered, electric powertrain of the future. As automotive OEMs continue to search for the best battery technologies to enable higher-performing (yet reasonably priced) EVs to meet explosive market demand, the historical protocols and processes have shifted in notable ways.
In the previous decade, forward-thinking automakers with EVs in their fleets required an extensive qualification process, by which battery component companies prove to the OEMs that their product meets performance and scale criteria. This process resulted in years-long partnerships, involving factory visits to verify not only a company’s manufacturing process and equipment but ultimately the end product on product lines. In all cases, automotive OEMs looked for a high-performing, cost-competitive and consistent product — the ideal trifecta — capable of achieving a scale to meet the 10% of its electrified fleet.
Today, with mounting public pressure from consumers and policymakers to decarbonize, the timeframe from initial information gathering to product-in-vehicles has drastically shortened for the majority of automakers that have committed to electric fleets. How can companies achieve this unimaginable scale without sacrificing any ingredients of the trifecta? Start by building a blueprint for a streamlined, modular and controllable manufacturing process at capacity from the get-go.
Manufacturing For Quantity Without Sacrificing Quality
Any blueprint for company processes has to carefully navigate the ramp to achieving capacity for manufacturing high-quality products at scale. The challenge with materials manufacturing is that the inputs endure multiple production stages before becoming the final end-product. Here, simplicity is key.
The first step is to design the technology in the lab, under ideal conditions, and control any variables likely to affect the technology in the real world. Bridging the chasm from lab to commercialization is the first challenge; replicating the manufacturing process at scale in the real world is the second. During this process, companies often struggle with maintaining quality and must go back to the drawing board. While this situation often isn’t deadly to a company’s prospects, it translates into an even longer qualification process, a grave concern for the automotive sector, which needs massive quantities at a breakneck pace.
In anticipation of such unexpected outcomes, the best strategy is to develop a plan for the manufacturing process as detailed as the blueprint for the technology itself. By forecasting all the potential challenges to scaling, companies can better maintain the integrity of the output — the product — from the first, small pilot facility to all subsequent factories. Of course, some unexpected challenges will continue to happen along the way, but you will be in a far better position to address them.
The Hidden Value Of A Continuous Manufacturing Process
If given a choice between an expensive, multistep manufacturing process or a streamlined, continuous one, automotive OEMs always choose the latter for their ability to more easily maintain controlled, repeatable quality. The two critical characteristics that guarantee the ideal end result are continuity and control. As quality is maintained throughout the process, so is the cost.
Manufacturing through multistep batch processes is inefficient, relying on many hard-to-control factors. In batch processes, engineers ramp up (and down) different processes, putting undue stress on the reactor equipment, which can lead to failures and poor product quality. From an efficiency standpoint, the ideal reactor technology is continuous by design to eliminate the batch process and potential inconsistencies from batch to batch.
Think about the manufacturing process in terms of a car on the highway versus in the streets. A car gets better gas mileage on the highway because it is a continuous road with no stop signs, reducing the need to ramp up and down. Similarly, the materials manufacturing process is most efficient as a continuous process. For a complex and massive undertaking like materials production for the EV industry, homogeneity is necessary.
For time, money or short-term simplicity, the manufacturing process may start as a batch process. But as you build up capacity, the process needs to be engineered into a single continuous step. For companies that are short-sighted and fail to transition to a more streamlined process, production will become costly and inefficient and ultimately unattractive to customers. After a continuous process is refined at the pilot scale, large-scale production needs to be modular in order to meet global demand. This guarantees that batch #1 is identical to batch #999, which is exactly what automotive OEMs need for their fleets.
Getting To 100% Requires Attention To The Details
Now that the process is locked down, how do companies make sure the yield of materials is as close to 100% as possible? It all comes down to control.
The fine particulate matter used for battery manufacturing presents challenges in itself. It is difficult to handle, especially on a larger scale. Many process designs for battery materials require exotic conditions, such as a vacuum, which are easily achievable in the lab but veer into dangerous territory at scale as conditions become increasingly difficult to control. As yield requirements increase, particularly for the thousands of tons required for a singular automaker’s fleet, the challenge lies in stabilizing the reactions.
To make battery material production manageable at a large scale, teams need to design for process control on reaction parameters, such as temperature and pressure. Going the extra mile to keep control charts on hand on the manufacturing floor, noting upper and lower bounds, maintains optimized material standards from start to finish, delivering exceptional quality control and performance demanded by OEMs.
From Blueprint To Factory: The Final Step
With a blueprint in hand, it is time to start the process of building, keeping in mind that a simple, modular and controllable manufacturing process at capacity is best. Companies often only get one opportunity to impress OEMs in consumer electronics, automotive and beyond, and it is crucial for a business’s success to come to the table prepared to deliver the same, perfect product in the short term with factory #1 or in the long term with factory #5.
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