The Electric Vehicle Revolution

The electric vehicle (EV) revolution continues to change the look, feel, and drive of the world’s automotive fleet.  Once extremely uncommon, a steadily increasing number of EVs can be spotted cruising around highways and byways across the country.  The EV shifts the traditional paradigm of the definition of an automobile because they diverge from traditional combustion engine automobiles in significant ways.  As demand for these vehicles continues to increase, automobile manufacturing must continue to rapidly adapt because there will be no going back, especially as more investments are made in EV charging infrastructure around the globe.  So far, the task of profitably manufacturing EVs is as just as challenging as the development of the cutting edge technologies used to power the vehicles.

The assembly and installation of the advanced fuel cell batteries that power the vehicle probably will remain the most challenging aspect of EV fabrication.  While there are a variety of unique anode/cathode pairs that are technically feasible to power EVs, the lithium ion battery has emerged as the front runner.  As the beneficiary of significant research and development breakthroughs, a variation of the same lithium ion battery technology used to power smartphones also powers the Nissan Leaf, the best-selling electric vehicle in the U.S.

Cutaway of Nissan Leaf

Cutaway battery of Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. The Leaf includes a 24kWh lithium-ion battery pack consisting of 48 modules which each contain 4 cells, for a total of 192 cells.

The various technologies now utilized in these fuel cell batteries have evolved quickly over the past few years.  Typically, the fuel cell battery “packs”, as they are called, are assembled from smaller module cells by separate battery suppliers.  However, as EV manufacturers continue to ramp up production, they will look to bring much more of these battery pack fabrication processes in-house in order to achieve significant production cost savings.

The leading industry pioneer, Tesla Motors, intends to accomplish this by investing $5 Billion in the construction of its self-proclaimed “Gigafactory”, which will significantly expand the company’s battery production capabilities.  Upon completion, Tesla hopes that it will be able to pump out half a million battery packs per year and achieve significant cost savings in the process by fabricating and assembling the packs almost entirely in-house from raw materials.

EV battery pack fabrication represents an entirely new class of automobile manufacturing jobs because assembly of the fuel cell battery packs is fundamentally different work than the work that typically goes into fabrication of a traditional combustion engine.  The traditional automobile engine block consists of a heavy steel casting with dozens of integral, moving parts which are all carefully assembled at extremely tight tolerances, whereas the EV battery pack possesses none of these considerations.  In this way, battery pack fabrication is a new challenge for EV manufacturers to master, which is exactly what Tesla’s Gigafactory is aiming to accomplish.

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A technician ratcheting down covers on a battery pack at the Smyrna Vehicle Assembly Plant in Tennessee.

Battery pack fabrication certainly represents the biggest manufacturing challenge for the industry, but there are others as well. One of the critical challenges of the EV design remains the ongoing search for creative methods to keep the overall weight of the vehicle as low as possible and successfully implement weight saving designs during production.  The pursuit of this endeavor has led to the scrutiny of nearly every aspect of each system in the vehicle.  The car body is meticulously engineered with weight reduction in mind, typically using lightweight aluminum alloys, instead of the heavier steel alloys.  The subsections of the body frames are joined in a modular fashion using advanced bonding processes with adhesives, in lieu of traditional fusion welding processes in order to further save weight and avoid difficult aluminum welds.   EV tires are typically rated to be inflated for higher pressures in order to minimize rolling wheel friction, and are sometimes self-sealing, in order to eliminate the need for a spare tire and the excess weight that comes with it.

All of these considerations represent significant, new challenges that must be taken into consideration when designing and manufacturing EVs, but there are a few advantages inherent to the designs of the electric car that present noteworthy production advantages.

For example, the typical EV does not have a gear transmission system because torque is simply a function of the motor current which is significantly different than the traditional combustion engine, where torque is a function of engine power and gearing.  Because of this, there is no need for a gear system to develop torque.

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The Tesla drive train is designed to be simple, streamlined, and light weight.

Additionally, it must not be overlooked that that EVs lack the cumbersome exhaust systems that are present on every conventional automobile on the road today.  This is significant for reasons far larger reasons than simply being one less system to install on the automobile.  It is important because it reduces overall weight and affords the opportunity for critical, live quality checks to be run on the car in a test track at the facility because it is a zero emissions vehicle.  These sorts of checks are typically run in the final steps of the fabrication process.

The EV revolution certainly presents unique challenges that must be overcome on the path to profitable, efficient vehicle manufacture, but it also affords unique opportunities that could never have been possible for the combustion engine automobile.  EVs are here to stay, and manufactures will continue to look for creative ways to meet significant production challenges.

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