Special Circumstances: How Specialty Pack Startups Can Manage Market Shifts 

Commentary Contributed by Mark Ziencina, Bosch Rexroth 

June 6, 2024 | Specialty pack manufacturing is an ever-changing microcosm within modern battery production. The steady increase in start-ups is a direct response to not only a wider adoption and adaptation of batteries for an ever-expanding set of applications, but nuanced consumer needs that subsequently put a strain on manufacturers who are striving to keep pace with shifting demands. As such, startups need to consider several key factors when responding to market demands to ensure their long-term success and viability. 

Many times, our initial discussions with manufacturers begin with a singular throughput target they’re trying to achieve. While this number is critical to their success, they sometimes fail to appreciate what’s perhaps the most important component to successful manufacturing: scalability. Being able to change processes to reach different goals gives manufacturers the ability and flexibility to not only increase/decrease output on a certain product but also pivot to an entirely new direction if that’s what the market dictates. 

The question then becomes, how do you get there? The solutions that are utilized with battery manufacturing can vary, but most OEMs leverage the versatility of advanced transfer systems to achieve a desired throughput. The type of transfer system required depends largely on what that throughput number looks like and the complexity of the pack. It’s worth noting that the transformation to Industry 4.0 and 5.0 has brought with it a general shift from manual conveyors to automatic, even for initial semi-automated process steps. However, manufacturers do not need to replace an entire production line with a brand-new system. Transfer systems have the capability to communicate with older processes and serve as a useful bridge from them to newer solutions. That modularity can not only save manufacturers on capital expenditures but consolidate their process footprint, where floorspace is a premium, regardless of facility type and age. 

Once manufacturers have adopted at least a semi-automated line, the task then shifts to evaluating the benefits of traditional twin strand or powered roller conveyors to high-speed conveyance, which is where the battery industry at-large is headed. For example, high-speed conveyance is frequently utilized to transport and accumulate individual cells prior to them being assembled into modules. In that use case, the tact times are only a few seconds. In reference to the flexibility point established earlier, many manufacturers may have a certain JPH number they want to reach and can do so with established technology. As such, they may be wary of newer processes and defer to “what we’ve always done.”  

But high-speed conveyance is helping OEMs—particularly those requiring a high throughput—redefine what production can look like. Magnetically-propelled conveyors move pallets at rapid speeds, achieve high position repeatability, and can be assembled in various configurations to further expedite particularly complex pack assemblies. Manufacturers that embrace this advanced technology are better positioned to address potential bottlenecks within their lines and optimize their throughput. 

Of course, conveyors aren’t the only solution startups need to leverage to meet their production goals. Smart handling equipment, including Cartesian robots and advanced linear motion subassemblies, have inherent flexibility that can further improve efficiencies throughout a line, while reducing the footprint typically required by robots. When considering handling technology, just like with conveyors, manufacturers need to anticipate not only the current throughput goals but also their ability to pivot to additional applications. Any solution that can do so provides a clear path to return on investment and helps illustrate to manufacturers its true value of being repurposed for future needs. 

Within the startup realm, there seem to be two categories of pack manufacturers—those venturing out with a pilot line waiting for the market to respond and support, and those reacting to a specific consumer demand. Both carry with it a degree of uncertainty, especially when considering the aforementioned proclivity of consumers to shift course. However, comprehensive solutions like modern transfer systems and smart handling Cartesian systems represent physical insurance policies that not only help achieve desired throughput goals but empower manufacturers to deftly shift to meet changing market demands and remain relevant in the manufacturing space.  

Mark Ziencina serves as the Battery and EV market segment leader for Bosch Rexroth, which works with OEMs on optimizing their automation processes to meet consumer demands. Mark’s experience within factory automation spans nearly 30 years and includes engineering, sales, product and business development. He can be reached at Mark.Ziencina@boschrexroth-us.com.