Philipp Wunderlich, you did your doctorate in materials for high-energy batteries. Has your job ever been more exciting?
Hardly. I’m actually a materials scientist, and am very familiar with electrochemistry and material properties. But I am no longer involved with laboratory-scale batteries and challenges on the nanoscale; I work more with Gigafactories. The emergence of the battery industry here in Europe has created new fields of action, which also require us to deal with automation and digital factory architecture.
What’s the current situation in Europe?
Europe is currently heavily ramping up its lithium-ion-battery production capacities for electromobility and stationary storage. The battery demand here for 2030 is expected to be between 400 and 800 gigawatt hours. If, thinking long-term, we want to build these capacities ourselves, we will need to build factories and supply chains on this continent. Despite many Gigafactory projects now being announced, and initial cells already being produced, we still remain dependent on Asian suppliers for the medium term.
Can anyone build a Gigafactory?
If they have enough cash, yes. Anyone wanting to set up a factory on a greenfield site will need around 80 million euros in capital expenditures per gigawatt hour. This can quickly end up in the billions – making it a high investment barrier for market entry. Even market newcomers can probably manage to build the factory; the actual challenge lies in running the factories profitably.
Who can afford to do that?
There are the old-timers, legacy players such as EAS Batteries, Saft and Leclanché, who were the first companies to establish their lithium-ion-battery production lines – and who are now only able to scale these factories to a limited extent, if at all. Then came the first wave of cell factories, predominantly Korean companies who chose locations in Eastern Europe. These were followed by a second wave that saw Chinese battery manufacturers arrive in Europe. A prime example of this is CATL in Thuringia. It’s exciting to see the work being done by the European OEMs, which are designing factories either independently or as joint ventures – and a series of regional start-ups that are ambitiously focusing on batteries that are exceptionally sustainable or very low-cost to produce. Among these are the great white hopes of the German premium-cell-production industry, like CUSTOMCELLS. The thriving market environment of recent years has made it very easy for new players to acquire investment capital.
Will it be a case of ‘whoever is fastest wins’?
You do definitely have to be quick if you want to conquer and scale the biggest possible market share. But it is equally important to ensure reliable material supplies. A state-of-the-art factory without a resilient supply chain for battery materials, like what LFP and NMC have, cannot be a competitive producer. The aim for European-made batteries should be to ensure particularly sustainable, low-energy production of cells and materials, as we ultimately need to decarbonise our mobility sector and energy industry.
In this race to achieve ever faster product-development cycles, it is also important not to neglect safety and quality standards if you want to remain competitive.
To what extent can the Industry 4.0 concept help with these aspects?
These days, adopting a digital approach to manufacturing at new factories right from the outset is a must. The factories can be toured virtually, and the process workflow simulated, even before construction has commenced. Another example is the Building Information Management (BIM) system, into which data are fed to help to prevent costly errors during the design phase or construction.
What is the basis for a smart Gigafactory?
A smart factory requires the production systems, workers and the building to be interconnected. This results in a huge amount of data to be handled. Digital representations of the real world can only work if they have been fed enough data – and the information is as accurate as possible, for example regarding cycle times of machinery and process stages, 3D design data for production lines, the exact design parameters for the battery cells and intermediate products. Only with comprehensive data can a realistic picture be painted.
Who can help achieve this?
In our case, it’s the experts and IT architects working in the field of digital solutions. The notion of harmonising operational (OT) and information technology (IT) is also playing an increasingly important role at Gigafactories. From the factory shop floor to the company’s management level, data transfer is becoming more and more automated through the use of sensor systems, human-machine interfaces (HMIs), production-campaign management systems (e.g., an MES) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. The interplay between these levels generates additional potential through well-considered use of the cloud or edge networking. A robust, scalable system architecture enables the product and process information to then be efficiently processed and interlinked. In battery manufacturing, this means the materials used in a cell can be tracked and traced.
… So the battery factory then runs itself?
Yes and no. The complexity of the production process, and the speed of the product-development process, is often underestimated. Modern battery technology is characterised by continuous innovation and optimisation management. Software solutions like product lifecycle management (PLM) are therefore required.
How does a cell manufacturer keep track of all the data?
This needs to be automated using computers and algorithms. There are over 50 product parameters, such as capacity, voltage and cell impedance. According to production researchers, there are over 1,000 intermediate-product parameters and a further 1,500 process parameters. So it is difficult for production employees or the R&D team to find all the key cause-and-effect relationships in a Gigafactory. Researchers are currently working on methods that are both descriptive and prescriptive – using artificial intelligence that can not only diagnose and predict, but which also actively provides solutions. This will probably involve machine learning.
With all this automation, how important will the role of humans be in future?
Fundamental. There are persistent rumours about Gigafactories devoid of humans. Based on our experiences and calculations, between 30 and 50 employees are still required for every gigawatt hour of factory size.
Most of them are operators who work the machinery and supervise the processes. At the same time, the production processes themselves require such a high degree of precision and speed that humans can no longer keep up. But too much automation makes production susceptible to errors, as the flexibility and technical skill of the human employees are missing. So it’s all about striking the right balance – and even that is becoming a challenge in an age of skills shortages.
How can umlaut help?
Through our long-time co-operations with cell manufacturers and many OEMs in the automotive and energy industries, we know batteries like the back of our hands. Not only can we advise on designing Gigafactories, but also systematically develop and build the IT and OT architecture, processes and simulations. We can also provide experienced teams to help set up the factory and start up the systems – a rare resource in this field.
Thanks for talking to us!