Manufacturing New Power and Charging Technology: Five Considerations
A flurry of automaker announcements in recent months have confirmed industry commitments to the electrification of their vehicle fleets. Vehicle electrification growth depends heavily on the high-volume production of power and charging technology that meets industry standards, inspires market competition and increases efficiencies.
At this unique inflection point for the mass adoption of electrified vehicles, the challenges are substantial, but they are certainly not insurmountable. In fact, the opportunity will be significant for those who manage risk within the electric vehicle supply chain and respond with agility to this market. To accomplish this, the industry must address five key aspects of manufacturing power and charging technology.
1. Designing and Developing Power and Charging Technology
The automotive and transportation industries have spent over a century developing vehicles predominantly propelled by Internal Combustion Engines (ICE). But with hundreds of HEV, PHEV and EV models predicted to launch globally within the next five years, a reliable, scalable, cost-effective charging infrastructure is also necessary.
Historically, automakers have relied heavily (but not entirely) on third parties to develop and deliver off-the-shelf solutions, rather than taking an end-to-end approach for product development and production. Hence their need to invest heavily in talent acquisition was limited primarily to vehicle assembly. For those automakers approaching their EV production in the same manner as their ICE vehicles, however, it will be vital to invest in talent with depth and breadth of knowledge regarding EV-specific technologies.
Perhaps one of the most important considerations in EV product design and development is the identification of core and non-core skill sets. Do automakers follow the traditional model and purchase parts or systems from specialist suppliers? Or do they invest in their own talent and expertise to retain control over design and IP while outsourcing manufacturing?
Automakers have more options for developing and producing technology than in the past, based on their financial, procurement, design/engineering capabilities and IP ownership goals. Newer models are emerging. These enable automakers and Tier 1s to outsource design and manufacturing while retaining control of the product. Automakers and Tier 1s are thereby spared the investments and time needed to search for and onboard specialized talent. At the same time, automakers can decrease the automotive product life cycle as they enter a new era.
2. Making Investments and Managing Assets
The difference between ICE and EV production processes and equipment drives the need for new types of factories – not just a retooling of existing production lines. This is inevitably an expensive exercise, costing billions of dollars. Understandably, many automakers are questioning whether this is the right way to invest this kind of money, knowing that if they do, those funds will need to be taken from somewhere else in their company.
One clear question is what automakers should do with their traditional ICE assets while they make the transition to electric. Two common scenarios illustrate this challenge:
- The vehicle manufacturer continues to build ICE powertrains as well as new electric powertrains in order to remain competitive. This translates into duplicate investment for the net same total volume (i.e., doubling their factory assets while not adding substantial sales volume, as their EV business cannibalizes their ICE business).
- As volume transitions from ICE to electric, the ICE assets become less and less utilized (i.e., less economic, while the electric side becomes more economic). This transition renders both sides uneconomic for a period of time.
These scenarios outline the importance of strategizing where long-term investments should be made and what to do with aging assets. In addition, there is the challenge of managing the risk associated with the electrification market share numbers not coming through as predicted.
3. Leveraging Specialized, Automated Manufacturing
With power and charging technology, the importance of automated assembly resides in its multi-board, multi-cable, complex mechanical assembly into an environmentally sealed end-product. Maximized efficiency, quality of the finished product and repeatability during production of safety-critical technology can be achieved through highly automated manufacturing. However, some of the challenges that automation has to accommodate are:
- High-voltage product: Safety aspects in manufacturing and testing and in the vehicle usage itself
- Thermal dissipation: Complicated assembly processes of products requiring high thermal dissipation
- Weight and dimensions: Large, heavy and non-uniform housing
- Multiple boards and sub-assemblies: Fitting, attaching and interconnecting are very dexterous processes
- Process validation and control: Critical in the manufacturing environment for controlling and measuring each of the inputs and ensuring a very controlled and repeatable output
- Cost of poor quality: Units can be very complex ‒ any kind of failure passed along manufacturing stations, in subsequent operations or in the finished unit can be very costly
With the right expertise, even complex product assemblies such as battery junction boxes, on-board chargers or traction inverters can be produced using highly automated manufacturing techniques.
Automotive electronics manufacturing requires a significant amount of expertise, competence and specialized processes, equipment and facilities. Re-purposing existing factories and labor takes substantial investments in buildings, equipment, and know-how. Electronics manufacturing becomes very much more specialized when it comes to automotive electric vehicle power and charging electronics.
4. Assuring Vehicle Quality Through Testing
Beyond leveraging automation, integrating the manufacturing test strategy into the process is almost as important as the production itself. Navigating high-voltage product testing (rather than the low-voltage systems used in ICE production) requires the right equipment and expertise. Robustness tests (such as resistance, hi-pot, leak and other types of tests) are critical in ensuring the reliable performance of safety-critical products in the field.
The quality of EV components is a critical concern for automakers. The production and testing of power and charging electronics is best approached with a manufacturing partner with mechanical assembly experience, electronics manufacturing expertise and core competencies rooted in the automotive industry.
5. Staying Competitive and Lean Through Partnerships
As noted earlier, there are several non-traditional and new models for designing, developing and producing solutions for vehicle electrification. One way vehicle manufacturers can navigate finding the right business and partnership structure for their needs is to leverage manufacturing solutions providers.
In product development and design, the right manufacturing partner has the expertise to know whether a part or systems design is ideal for efficient and cost-effective mass production. If it is not, it can be re-designed for manufacture in the development cycle, resulting in better throughput and higher repeatability and quality. Better yet, earlier engagement in product development ensures a partner’s expertise and experience can be leveraged at the start of the product lifecycle.
In addition, the creation of resident expertise in the manufacturing of components and systems for electrified powertrains is critical to support this growing market at the right quality levels. The investment and time required to reach this point – both in assets and experience – can be prohibitive. Through outsourcing to specialist manufacturing partners, the investment and risk is absorbed by the partner, with the added benefit that the customer can direct its investments toward its strategic business objectives.
For automotive electronic manufacturing service (EMS) partners, their business foundation has traditionally been in populating the printed circuit board assembly. However, over the last decade, several EMS companies have been adding more and more value to the backend, investing in specialist capabilities, processes and expertise, including high levels of automation, to manufacture more complex electro-mechanical assemblies.
We’ve already established that the production of high-voltage systems enabling vehicle electrification requires specialist expertise, processes and manufacturing environments, all of which a strategic manufacturing partner will continue to invest in on behalf of their customers.
Over the next decade, we will see ICE vehicles gradually decline as more electric vehicles take their place, but the road there will have its share of speedbumps. The pace of the EV industry expansion will depend on government regulations, technological advancements and consumer adoption. A good partner will ultimately help mitigate the risk associated with bringing a manufacturer’s power and charging technology to the mass market.
Whitepaper: Accelerating Electrified Vehicle Production Through Risk-Mitigating Partnerships
Electrified vehicles’ shift from niche market to mainstream mobility is visibly in-process, but it comes with considerable challenges. To meet the estimated levels of adoption, the automotive industry can create manufacturing ecosystems that will accelerate time to mass-market of electrified vehicles, while managing risks associated with: product design & development; investments & asset management; supply chain & unforeseen events; specialized manufacturing & localized footprint; and, fluctuations in demand.