Producing better batteries means transforming manufacturing
Perhaps no manufacturing sector is battling harder on the front lines of environmental protection than automotive/aeronautics as they fight to make non-fossil-fuel transportation a reality. For power companies, wind and solar lead the list, but the largest alternative fuel opportunity by far is the battery.
In the next several decades, it appears that battery storage will become the primary power source for new vehicles and other gasoline powered equipment.
The manufacturing companies responsible for developing batteries and vehicles have been given a challenge that includes a nasty dilemma: build more powerful, longer lasting batteries that are safer than previous generations. The volatile combination of materials that turn liquid/solid compounds into electrical energy are by nature dangerous. To reduce their explosive potential while building them for longer life will demand new chemical technology and innovative design.
There are now two landscapes to explore: making safer more powerful, longer lasting batteries and making batteries safely, efficiently and faster. In the end businesses must do both while building products that will attract consumers and businesses to purchase electric vehicles. Safety and reliability lead the list for governmental concerns while price and speed of charge are usually at the top of the consumer’s list.
Let’s look first at the manufacturing environment as it stands today and as it must look in the future.
Europe and Asia
“China is leading the world’s boom in electric vehicles – here’s why,” is the title of a 2017 report (1) detailing the leap China has taken to build better batteries and infrastructure for EVs and PHEVs. China sold twice as many electric vehicles as were sold in Europe two years ago, and battery prices are now about one fifth of the prices just five years ago, the report said.
China is also pushing research and technology in batteries like no other country. Realizing its dependence on foreign oil continues while pollution from these products runs rampant, China’s government has three choices, the report said, and two of them are stark.
• Live with the status quo of internal combustion engines, and try to battle pollution and gas prices
• Restrict transportation and use more public transportation choices
• Take the lead in electric technology from research to manufacturing.
It’s obvious to observers in 2018 that China chose the latter option. More people can afford independent transportation in China and this transportation allows many more skilled people to travel to the factories leading these innovations, so the electric vehicle explosion has a multiplicative effect of China’s businesses overall.
China is under an international pall, particularly from the United States, for appropriating technology. However, it appears the government is spending whatever capital it must to develop its own research in electric vehicles. Its citizen employment outlook continues to grow. China employed a staggering 776 million people in 2017. This growth is reflected in its increasing need for transportation choices.
Europe is behind China in battery and vehicle development, as well as sales and use of current vehicles. (2) Battery and electric vehicle research is lagging that of China. In the race for environmentally friendly energy technology, Europe led for decades. However, as of 2017 seven Chinese cities led the transition to EVs, selling about 16 percent of vehicles for city transportation, while seven European cities sold one percent, or seven percent in total, this report said. China sold 17 percent more vehicles in 2015 than were sold in the United States, where even California sales lagged behind Chinese cities.
The severe economic crisis in 2007 stopped or delayed many initiatives that were going full throttle. (3) An example was Parliament’s decree to Downing Street in 2012 that it stop public subsidy of wind power. Five years after the crash, these initiatives ground to a halt, but of course the problems in transportation and other energy pollution persisted. As the world comes out of this economic shock, Europe must ramp up innovation centers, transportation grids and smart technology in general to catch the Asian train.
One of the means to this end is investing in automated intelligence. Artificial intelligence (AI) was just a science fiction theme only a few decades ago. The advent of supercomputing, miniaturization and “intelligent” software meant that many robotic machines became a reality. Machines become more capable every year and the Internet of Things (IoT) interconnecting it all gets more intuitive. Manufacturing is at the forefront of integrating tools, machines, people and entire plants into one cohesive unit; the resulting smart plant is the goal of Industry 4.0 (I4).
Let’s look at the nuts and bolts of I4, also known as the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT. According to reports like this (4), the technical changes demand a great leap toward change, not simply adding new components to old frameworks. The changes in speed and accuracy mean that design facilities can move toward more experimentation. I4 will demand wholesale changes in the way goods are conceived, produced and delivered.
In manufacturing revolutions like the advent of CAD/CAM, entire industries were born. While it is true some machining methods and the skills behind them died away, the computer age was a boon to every sector of manufacturing. Medical technology would still be non-atomic and non-DNA specific without this revolution. In turn, AI and IIoT stand to again revolutionize the use of spaces and time, personnel and machines, and management concepts throughout a plant environment. In many cases, climate and location will be irrelevant. Autonomous factories can operate with fuel and power and little else.
The tenets of I4 are very similar to the requirements for self-contained Internet businesses, but expanded to include hard products, supply chains, real industrial spaces and transportation of hard goods. This article states four areas of change in the new factory that will challenge old methods and practices:
1. Interoperability – In general, when things go wrong due to lack of communication, the problem is one entity not able to interact with another. Vital items that are not interchangeable can shut down production.
2. Information transparency – In much the same way as communication breakdowns, every link in the product chain becomes a need-to-know link by definition of I4.
3. Actionable insights – Research and development becomes free to test ideas that were previously put through an unending process of approvals and paperwork.
4. Automation – This will be the great leap into the future: AI, robotics, Nano-tech and autonomous vehicles all running in unison throughout the plant.
New research in chemistry
This is the landscape in which Europe must plow away at gaining ground on China, developing wholesale manufacturing sites that can put new battery technology into new products. The Li-ion battery may have run its course, or it may be on the verge of a new development that can save it. (5) A report on further development of Li-ion makes a few things clear:
• Li-ion batteries originally had more unusable space than electro-storage space
• Li-ion is difficult to produce in a safe manner
• The batteries can be unsafe in normal use.
Researchers are looking at zinc combinations to produce more power in a safer package. The density of the battery is the key.
Combining IIoT and electronic research
In an article about examples of I4 being developed now, the authors describe some innovative structural changes big companies are employing to develop IIoT. One important caveat is that, although wholesale change will be necessary, the system can be tested in a microcosm. So, MAN, a German bus and truck maker, added new technology to its trucks already on the road. The program tracks the vehicle’s performance and reports in real time, which is a step beyond the company’s predictive maintenance program already in use.
Airbus is developing its factory of the future by equipping personnel on the manufacturing floor now with smart tools like eyeglasses that receive and transmit data between machinery and main computers. While the main factory is not yet a reality, people will move right in having been trained on the interfaces.
Limtronik, of Limburg, Germany, created a “sandbox” testing area for devices that learn from mistakes, adjust and build algorithms that prevent the error in the future. The electronics research area is just the type of environment needed to research the reactions and safety of battery materials. “So, the future system will not only capture and document errors via quality reports, but also evaluate the reason fully automatically,” the report said.
Manufacturers still face the oldest question in competitive sales: How can we make better products at lower cost than our competition? Making a better product only works in an economy if the price justifies the purchase, especially in an industry that produces a great number of expensive products like automobiles and trucks.
Using the principles of I4, smart manufacturing and supply chain logic, companies can get ahead of their Asian counterparts through materials innovation. The products of the future will have been tested like none before, but the practicality and salability of those products must fall into the same supply-demand postulate in which every product endures or dies.