Contributed Commentary by Mark Ziencina, Bosch Rexroth Corp.
August 9, 2022 | The electric battery has become one of the most essential elements of our modern lives, powering everything from pacemakers to smartphones to electric vehicles (EVs). While many consumers take the product for granted, battery manufacturing requires extremely tight assembly tolerances and high rates of throughput, with real-time inspection, data capture and communication via machine and plant-level control systems. The process involves a “multiverse” of technologies, such as automation controls, drives, linear motion and material handling systems, to help satisfy these requirements.
How can all these elements work together to help battery manufacturers improve production, especially as consumer demand surges? Let’s explore some advantages to streamlining automation system engineering and integration using a more complete approach.
One of the most critical challenges with electrode production is precise quality control as raw materials are taken through processing steps, from grinding and mixing through coating, drying, and compressing.
To ensure these highly automated processes also yield anodes and cathodes of the highest quality, maximizing control over the coating calendaring process is an area where the right technologies can boost performance. To eliminate variations in production, manufacturers should choose advanced controls and servo drive platforms that can provide high-speed multi-axis synchronization and highly accurate pressure and position control, including closed-loop sag and loop control to minimize web breakage and waste.
This is where an open control architecture and app-based control platform enables users to easily create, add, or share automation functions (like using smartphone apps). This type of controls approach makes it easier and faster to implement or change the specific machine functionality that high-throughput coating systems require.
While each cell technology—cylindrical, pouch, prismatic or solid state—poses its own manufacturing challenges, all require high-speed transport systems to sustain targeted production levels.
Regardless of the production method to process electrode films into cells, high throughput, compact footprints and flexibility to change workflows are all critical criteria to assess when selecting transport technology like conveyors. This is where it’s important to evaluate transport systems from broad material handling product lines that can meet the needs of the product being manufactured—weight, throughput speeds and endpoint accuracy—as well as battery-specific requirements related to dry room and clean room conditions. New, versatile and ultrafast platforms are now available that use linear motor technology and support fully programmable multidirectional throughput for more production line flexibility.
Modular plastic chain conveyors are another option. These proven systems can be easily configured to move high-volume products horizontally, vertically, around obstacles or integrated with other process flows. These systems can also support workpiece pallets to convey cell components where positioning or higher stopping precision is needed.
One of the most critical decisions that can impact throughput and flexibility is to assess and specify the transport solution as early as possible when engineering the cell production line. Too many times transport systems are considered at the end of the design process, where rigid material transport capabilities can hamstring a manufacturer’s ability to adjust operations to meet industry changes.
End-of-line (EOL) Testing
EVs would not be transforming our transportation world without the massive advances in battery pack technology. Unlike the fuel tanks they replace, EV battery packs are sophisticated components, and before every vehicle is released, testing and verifying the performance of each pack is essential.
A plant producing 50 EVs per hour would need to test a new battery pack every 72 seconds, so EOL battery testing systems must be extremely reliable, as well as highly automated, to match mass vehicle production rates.
Complete battery pack EOL test platforms are now available that combine high-performance industrial inverter drives with specially developed testing software. They provide fast, safe, and precisely controlled delivery of DC power to the power packs, according to exact testing specifications. They also feature open, high-speed communication interfaces to make it easy to integrate test data into production line and plant-level data management and analysis systems.
Faster Ramp-ups of Production Lines
With rapidly growing demand for all types of batteries, the system design, component selection and acquisition, programming and integration for new production lines using traditional automation engineering practices just cannot keep up the pace.
Along with advanced product technologies, new concurrent engineering processes for automation development are leading to faster paths forward. In one example, we recently worked with DWFritz Automation, a leading provider of engineered-to-order precision automation solutions, to build a flexible, high-throughput and fully automated battery production line in record time.
Working as strategic partners with expertise across a complete automation portfolio, the two companies collaborated in a concurrent virtual engineering environment. As a result, production line decision making was streamlined. Component acquisition, programming, and integration occurred in multiple, overlapping workflows which facilitated faster project execution, installation and commissioning.
In the end, an efficient concurrent automation engineering process, combined with the flexibility of leveraging a full solutions portfolio, can be an effective method for bringing the battery production multiverse together to improve speed to market.
Mark Ziencina is the Business Development Manager at Bosch Rexroth Corp. responsible for the Battery and EV markets in North America. Mark has 28 years of Factory Automation experience, including sales of Rexroth products and capital equipment along with global account strategy formulation and execution experience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.