Battery makers need a long-term automation strategy now if they’re going to keep up with the unprecedented growth of the electric vehicle market.
By Bill Sarver, senior industry consultant for Global Automotive and Tire, Rockwell Automation
Get ready for an influx of electric vehicles — on the road, on the manufacturing floor and maybe even in your driveway. Demand is growing at an unprecedented rate. In fact, sales of electric vehicles are projected to represent more than half of all global, light-duty vehicles sales by 2040.
Why? Lower battery prices play a significant role. Batteries make up a third of the cost of an electric vehicle, so as the cost of batteries decreases, the overall vehicle cost does too, stimulating increased demand.
This growth represents a tremendous opportunity for automotive battery manufacturers — but only if they’re in position to take advantage of it.
Many manufacturers have been getting by with disparate and disconnected information systems running in the enterprise and across their facilities, but that simply won’t cut it for much longer. What has been a low-volume industry to date is poised to explode, with an exponential demand curve.
In addition, as battery manufacturers build greenfield, giga-scale production plants to meet demand, they’re challenged to build for growth from the start.
The entire enterprise needs to be connected. If you’re a battery maker, you need to automate your systems now to keep up with demand, grow your business and achieve a key part of the Industry 4.0 (smart manufacturing) strategy.
Rapid Growth and Evolution
The inherent challenge of meeting demand in battery production for electric vehicles isn’t simply about the volume of vehicles. It’s also about the volume of batteries needed to power each vehicle and the rapid evolution of battery technology. Both factors create a large and diverse set of production needs.
It all comes down to this: As a battery manufacturer, you must be nimbler. You need to be able to manufacture multiple types of batteries efficiently and adjust quickly as the needs and technology change.
It’s vital that you’re able to change your production lines rapidly in response — while managing yield and quality control. That’s where automation becomes key.
You know the value of automating your systems, but the return on investment (ROI) might not seem to justify the effort at this point. Or, you may simply be unsure how to implement within your system. Fortunately, there’s some flexibility in how you can address these challenges.
Implement Over Time
Here’s the good news: you don’t have to tackle everything at once. The move to automation can roll out in phases. The key is to develop a long-term, smart manufacturing strategy tailored to your operations that will guide the process over time. You can start implementing at the pace and scale that make sense today, then scale up as you prove ROI and your production needs change.
A manufacturing execution system (MES) will provide a foundation from which you can build. MES already has been put to work in general automotive operations with proven results. Applying MES technology in battery manufacturing is relatively new but should be used more broadly.
An MES allows you to integrate your control and business systems to execute and track orders across your enterprise and can provide the additional context that turns production data into actionable information.
A full-scale MES solution can be deployed across your enterprise, but if you’re looking to start more granular and scale up, there are also specific, fit-for-purpose MES applications that address needs down to the machine or work-area level. These applications are used to address specific manufacturing challenges by fully integrating your processes’ work instructions into your machines and reduce the time to value by minimizing configuration efforts.
They can also help confirm that you have complete traceability throughout the manufacturing process, from mixing through formation. The MES allows you to track and trace product through the production cycle, generating the genealogy quickly and easily.
It’s a level of transparency vital to delivering a consistent level of quality required for each battery and essential to assuring that the battery ultimately is safe for use. Or with an MES quality application, you could understand when a machine’s processes go outside of their prescribed limits when performing quality checks. Even as processes for each variety of battery become more complex, this capability helps users respond to issues in real time before they turn into quality issues.
Over time, these applications can be scaled up to the larger enterprise system. A fully implemented MES delivers a single version of truth across all processes — the key to understanding and managing production. You can pull data for analysis, providing a clearer and more accurate picture of your entire operations. By using actionable information from across the floor, you can begin to optimize your processes, improving throughput and driving quality improvements, standardization and repeatability.
An enterprise MES should be part of the long-term strategy for any battery manufacturer, but how each organization gets there will be highly individual. Make a plan so you’re connecting and building systems with intention and clear strategy, rather than just adding systems as you go.
This is the right time to evaluate your operations through the lens of Industry 4.0, helping to ensure that you build toward seamless connectivity and data sharing across the organization.
However, it’s not just about connecting operations. That’s the first step, but you create the real value in how you use the data you gather to make business decisions. Think through how you want to use analytics and design them from the start.
Building a Connected Enterprise is beneficial to any manufacturer, but in the automotive industry, the rise of electric vehicles is creating even greater urgency and incentive. Battery manufacturers that invest the time to create a smart manufacturing strategy and bring in the right technologies and partners will be in the best position to benefit as the market grows.
Learn about Rockwell Automation solutions for electric vehicle manufacturers.
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