Like most major automakers, Ford has begun to rethink its strategy around batteries and cells as the market for electric vehicles (EV) continues to pick up momentum. When developing new vehicles, automakers have to look at every component and evaluate the make/buy equation. Until relatively recently, most automakers have seen the EV market as such a small niche that they opted to buy. But as that balance shifts, Ford has announced the establishment of a new battery center of excellence it has dubbed Ion Park.
Ion Park will be located at a site somewhere in southeast Michigan where Ford is based and will be initially staffed by about 150 people in a cross functional team under the leadership of Anand Sankaran, currently the director of electrified vehicle engineering. Like the earlier focused teams established by Ford which became Team Edison and Autonomous Vehicles LLC, Ion Park will bring together experts in battery technology development, research, manufacturing, planning, purchasing, quality and finance.
The goal for Ion Park is to be an incubator to accelerate Ford’s battery R&D, testing and developing cell chemistries and new cell types, working with suppliers of materials, developing manufacturing processes and doing prototype and pilot production. The pilot production line is planned to be capable of producing large format cells that can actually be put into test vehicles.
In addition to continuing development of advanced lithium ion cells, Ion Park will also be looking at new technologies such as solid-state cells. One of the targets of the research will be evaluating manufacturing processes that enable as much re-use of capital investment as possible during the transition to solid state.
Ford already has a battery lab in Allen Park, Mich. and has been collaborating with researchers at the University of Michigan for several years. While the location of Ion Park hasn’t been announced yet, it is expected to be a 200,000 square foot facility.
Overall, this is a trend that has been brewing for some time now as automakers have been moving to take a more active role in battery sourcing. The first trend was automakers establishing supply deals directly with raw material suppliers for lithium, cobalt, nickel, etc. Companies like BMW and VW led the way in doing this, locking up supplies with the plan to provide the materials to their cell manufacturing partners.
As demand for EVs has started to accelerate, they have begun looking at bringing the cell production at least partly in-house. VW seems to be going all in, while Stellantis and GM are doing joint-ventures with Total and LG. Based on comments from Ford Chief Product Officer Hau Thai-Tang said, it looks like Ford is also leaning in the JV direction.
The recent trade secrets spat between SK Innovation and LG along with the chip supply shortages are pushing Ford and others to firm up their plans sooner than originally expected but the industry was going to move in this direction anyway. Engines and transmissions have been considered a core competency of automakers since 1886, but as those go away, they are seeing the need to make batteries and motors the replacement.
No one wants to get locked out of supplies and as volumes scale, the cost of paying a markup to suppliers is going to grow. The scale that big OEMs have will mean they will potentially have more battery production a decade from now than the big cell players have today.
Ford is by no means the first automaker to embark on this path. GM established its first major battery lab in 2007 during development of the original Chevrolet Volt and has expanded it several times in the years since. Other automakers including VW, BMW, Daimler and of course Tesla are also investing heavily in battery R&D and production.
Nissan also established its own cell production capability in advance of the 2010 release of the Leaf, but subsequently sold off Automotive Energy Supply Corp. to Chinese investment firm GSR Capital when Leaf sales failed to meet expectations. Nissan was clearly early to the EV party but perhaps the 2020s are the right time to make these massive investments.