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How automation can drive the UK’s electric vehicle industry

04 September 2018

It is largely assumed that the UK is close to missing out on opportunities presented by electric vehicle (EV) development. Take the area of lithium-ion batteries, for example. Supply is currently dominated by businesses based in Japan, South Korea and China; many of which have had a 20-year lead over the UK in establishing an effective battery manufacturing supply chain.

One area British businesses could compete is in the design and development of battery cells, for which there is increasing demand for electric and autonomous vehicles, as well as static energy storage. 

According to Kieron Salter, managing director of high performance engineering consultancy KWSP, digital manufacturing offers British businesses a golden opportunity to take advantage of battery cell demand. Salter believes that by exploiting digital manufacturing techniques in production, UK industry can focus on what it does better than other nations – in essence, improving the manufacturing process used for the ever-growing demand on the supply chain for battery cells.

That’s exactly what the company has teamed up with WMG, at the University of Warwick, to explore. Through co-funding by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, the collaboration is looking into a feasibility study and demonstrator of a new electrode material deposition technology, to be used within lithium-ion batteries (the current most popular form of EV battery). The project, which could significantly advance the UK’s competitive position in battery cell manufacturing if successful, is exploring how electrode material deposition can be digitally controlled to not only potentially enable the reduction of costs, but most importantly, digitally control the deposition to improve quality, consistency, and repeatability. This, in turn, creates a higher yield of high capacity cells.

Salter explains: “The current process for battery cell manufacturing has limited control over the consistency of deposition. This makes quality a real issue because a battery pack is only as effective as the least effective cell. 

“As a traditional analogue coating process, there is little process control and therefore no real-time manufacturing feedback. Currently, the process is a reel-to-reel gravure and slot die coating on high speed production lines. It still relies on a final inspection grading process; the batteries are manufactured, tested and then graded by performance.”

Instead, KWSP, is trialling a different approach through digital manufacturing in collaboration with WMG. One process being considered is use of industrial inkjet-inspired material deposition, an innovative manufacturing technique whereby materials are digitally deposited onto substrates. The technology aims to improve overall accuracy and material deposition control, with less wasted material and greater consistency. The approach also offers a more scalable and modular solution, which can be rolled out across other areas of battery cell manufacturing. 

“It’s about increasing quality and battery yield, while reducing grading requirements by improving quality and consistency. Digital manufacturing allows us greater flexibility to react to feedback during the manufacturing process,” Salter explains.

“Inkjet deposition of electrode material will give us a more cost-effective, accurate and scalable process for battery cell manufacture.”

A recent discussion in the House of Commons followed sentiments outlined in the Industrial Strategy last year and was centred around ensuring the UK leads the world in the development and production of batteries for electric vehicles. According to Salter, digital technologies and manufacturing techniques hold the key. 

“To take advantage of opportunities presented by electric vehicles and battery cell production, we need to concentrate on the strengths that the UK has in this field, which is largely within materials science and manufacturing technology development. Automation of battery cell assembly and testing using robotics and Industry 4.0 solutions will give us greater digital freedom, accuracy and repeatability. At KWSP, we are always looking at ways digital manufacturing can be harnessed to improve the manufacturing process in a range of industries.”

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