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Ford’s BlueOval City manufacturing campus in Tennessee, slated to become operational in 2022, includes a fully integrated battery manufacturing ‘gigafactory’ operated in partnership with battery developer SK On. It is one of numerous battery gigafactories planned for or already under construction in North America. (Ford)

Getting EV battery gigafactories up to speed

At the 2023 Battery Show, a panel discussed the challenges involved with building and operating the EV battery-production ‘gigafactories’ that all automakers and battery suppliers need to manufacture battery cells in the extreme volumes required for automotive use.

The term “gigafactory” has become common lexicon for a manufacturing facility constructed to produce the almost incalculable number of individual battery cells required for the millions of EV expected to be on the road in the coming decade. Gigafactories represent high-precision fabrication on a scale almost unrivalled by any other type of manufacturing.

But combining high precision with ultra-high volumes comes with immense difficulties to overcome. A panel of manufacturing experts at the Battery Show North America enumerated some of the challenges involved with building and operating EV battery gigafactories in a session titled “Meeting Battery Demands: Accelerate Yield Ramp and Quality from Battery Gigafactories.”

Two chief issues to scaling production from a battery gigafactory are profit-related and, perhaps surprisingly to some, human-related.

Several panelists mentioned that the pressures of gigafactory production volumes and the relative newness of battery fabrication underscore the dearth of people highly experienced in the battery-manufacturing environment. There isn’t a large “pool of experts” with the experience and expertise required to ramp up a gigafactory in the typical 18 months allowed for such projects, said Tal Sholklapper, CEO of battery data analytics specialist Voltaiq. The lack of experienced experts is a current industry “pinch point,” agreed Ryuta Kawaguchi, chief technical officer at Freyr and who previously worked on U.K.-based Dyson’s EV project.

Tight margins
The tight profit margins of the battery-production business also apply distinct pressures when trying to launch gigafactories, said Celina Mikolajczak, chief battery technical officer for Lyten, a startup seeking to commercialize lithium-sulfur battery chemistry. Because of the tight margins and extreme daily production volumes, “Decisions have to happen very quickly,” she said. “Downtime is immensely expensive.”

Session moderator Bob Galyen, National Distinguished Expert, NAATBatt International Chairman Emeritus and CTO, said that meager margins also stress the gigafactory environment in terms of profit-sapping scrappage. “Most startups are in the [scrappage] area of 30 percent or higher,” Galyen said, as opposed to the 6% to 7% scrappage rates accepted for most Class A manufacturing plants. Because of high scrappage, “The first year or two, it’s very difficult to make money,” Galyen asserted, as some panelists also confirmed pressure to bring a gigafactory to expected production volumes can mitigate against low scrappage.

Not quite ‘giga’
One answer to successful gigafactory scaling may be to start not quite so ‘giga.’ Lyten’s Mikolajczak said a smaller battery-production facility, one of perhaps 5 GWh – as opposed to an annual production output of 20 GWh or more for a conventional gigafactory – may be “a necessary step before you go to a full gigafactory.”

The smaller factory footprints might also be a more manageable and efficient beginning phase for startups working with new chemistries or production processes, Mikolajczak said.

Other solutions include “moving data-driven decision-making” into the battery production sector, said Peter Kostka, director, battery solutions at PDF Solutions. Kostka said there are some parallels with the semiconductor industry, which also produces in extremely high volumes and requires absolute precision in its finished products. Nick Appleyard, VP Siemens Digital Industries Software, Siemens, agreed that the widening disciplines of simulation, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be relied upon to help deliver the quality required of automotive batteries while maintaining reliable throughput. The industry is increasingly introducing digital twins and other techniques, he said, to support digital-based advanced manufacturing.

Lyten’s Mikolajczak also said that gigafactories’ diversity of operations brings unique problems. “You don’t have one factory, you have multiple factories – all of which require different disciplines,” she said. Introduction of an increasing number of production-line sensors and artificial intelligence can help keep operations in a gigafactory from feeling like cooking but never knowing anything about the recipe until the final outcome, said PDF’s Kostka.

Galyen said there currently can be 3,600 or more “control points” in making a battery cell. And tolerances in some aspects of battery production can be in single-digit microns, he added. Yet battery-production takt times, reminded Mikolajczak, are a fraction of those in vehicle production.

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