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TECHNOLOGICAL BLOACKAGES & SOLUTIONS IN EV MANUFACTURING Electric vehicles: Challenges, solutions & future

May 23, 2022

India is rapidly moving towards the adoption of electric vehicles, both for personal and commercial use, and so are the challenges faced by the EV producers. But, where there are challenges and problems, there are solutions too. The Cover Story highlights the technological blockages the EV makers are facing, while elaborating on the solutions that are quickly being integrated into manufacturing platforms.

Like the two sides of a coin, the electric vehicle industry in India is emerging with two distinct faces. On one hand, there has been an increasing acceptance of electric mini transport vehicles and buses while on the other there has been a spate of news regarding electric two-wheelers igniting into flames. The point to note, however, is that India is steadfastly moving towards adoption of EVs as India’s ambition towards an electric mobility economy by 2030 was announced in 2016. Further, in a recent communication by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and NITI Aayog, the government announced its aim of increasing the share of EVs from its current share of less than 1% to nearly 30% by 2030.

This implies that by 2030, the total estimated number of electric two-wheelers on Indian roads will be more than 200 million, while for cars and buses, the electric vehicles have been estimated at 34 million and 2.5 million. To focus on the manufacturing of EVs, the shift from internal combustion engine (ICE) to batteries and electric motors is tough. But there is no denying that it’s a challenge that manufacturers and suppliers are tackling head on. Faced with new regulations to help reduce global carbon emissions, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have had no choice but to shift focus away from diesel and gasoline to batteries. Almost every OEM has now gone public about their plans for electric vehicles.

Need for motors

Whether it’s an electric car, truck or tractor, traction motors are vital for making wheels spin. That’s why many automakers such as BMW, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen plan to assemble motors in-house. For instance, Ford is spending $150 million to refurbish its Van Dyke transmission plant in Sterling Heights, USA, to mass-produce e-motors. General Motors is also taking a vertically integrated approach with its modular Ultium Drive power train family, which consists of three interchangeable motors. “As with other propulsion systems that are complex, capital-intensive and contain a great deal of intellectual property, we are always better off making them ourselves,” Adam Kwiatkowski, Executive Chief Engineer for Global Electrical Propulsion, General Motors said in an interview for a publication.

Taking over the role of the internal combustion engine in car engineering, electric motors are a fundamental building block of electric cars, together with the battery and power electronics. While there are many different types of electric motor designs, every device has four basic components: a rotor, stator, body assembly and battery control module. And, there are fewer parts overall other than the internal combustion engine. An electric motor typically has only about 20 moving parts versus 200 or more in an ICE. This motor is an electrical machine that converts electrical energy into mechanical energy. Most electric motors operate through the interaction between the motor’s magnetic field and electric current in a wire winding to generate force in the form of torque applied on the motor’s shaft.

Automated assembly

So, what are the changes that will take place as an increasing number of automakers shift from traditional petrol and diesel vehicles to electric ones? On the shop floor, for instance, as OEMs and suppliers ramp up EV production, more robots will be used to assemble smaller parts and subassemblies, in addition to the entire motor itself. One area that is an ideal candidate for automation is rotor assembly, where close tolerances present numerous challenges. Rotor and stator assembly applications use robots to pick, wind and shape coils or windings. Robots can also be used for making connections, pressing the rotor shaft, welding and gluing, plus bolting the body together. As Patrick Matthews, Global Power Train Group Manager, ABB Robotics, said in an interview with a leading publication, “The automated injection of glue into magnet housings is essential to ensure retention of the magnets, even at very high rotational speeds of 15,000 rpm or more. Test & inspection also are a continuous activity throughout electric motor production, with robots constantly monitoring quality and correct assembly within very tight tolerances.”

Going light

Vehicle weight is a major determiner of drive range. A 10% weight reduction can improve fuel economy up to 8%. Unfortunately, electric drive trains and batteries are significantly heavier than ICE power trains. To counteract the increased weight of electric power trains, vehicle manufacturers are incorporating advanced lightweight materials into the vehicle body. Replacing conventional materials with lightweight magnesium and aluminium alloys or carbon fibre can reduce the weight of a vehicle body and chassis by up to 50%. Vehicle manufacturers must incorporate these materials intelligently and ensure that weight reductions do not compromise vehicle safety.

Drive range is also impacted by the size and chemistry of the vehicle batteries. Many EVs currently on the market are adapted from pre-existing ICE vehicles. Due to differences in the packaging of ICE and electric power trains, these non-native EVs compromise battery size to fit into the existing architecture. Manufacturers are shifting to modular native EV platforms, both to better accommodate electric power trains and to support high-volume production. Native EV platforms can accommodate battery packs that are up to 25% larger, providing greater drive range, and support flexible power train configurations.

According to a report, many entrepreneurs and start-up companies are scrambling to develop innovative EV motor technology. One of them is Saietta Group, a UK-based firm pinning its hopes on a new motor that is suitable to a wide range of electric vehicle applications. Its axial flux traction (AFT) motor is modular, lightweight and affordable. The unique design features a dual rotor, axial flux permanent magnet combined with distributed windings and a yokeless stator. Saietta’s first commercial offering, the AFT 140, is designed for use in mid-sized motorcycles and final-mile elivery vehicles. But the company claims that other versions of the AFT motor can be used in other types of EVs.

Manufacturing challenges

Despite the many economic and environmental benefits of EVs and hybrid vehicles, there are challenges with regard to the availability and affordability of material used in manufacturing these vehicles. Going by the current lithium battery chemistry and no further changes in technology in power train manufacturing in the four-wheeler hatchback segment, the total demand for materials is estimated to increase from 0.005 million tonnes to nearly 1.6 million tonnes, as per a report published by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Further, many of the resources like copper, lithium, permanent magnets and related materials and components, are heavily imported by India with import costs increasing over the years.

Lithium is one of the most important resources going into manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles, and the resource availability is largely confined to countries like Chile, China, Argentina and Australia. Cobalt, another material that goes into manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles, is largely mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Permanent magnets that are used in manufacturing synchronous motors are largely manufactured from rare earth elements where China has a quasi-monopoly. “Absence of appropriate resource interventions may lead to higher imports of the critical materials that go into manufacturing different EV components, including batteries and power trains, leading to an increase in our import bill,” the report points out.

Growth triggers

The good news is that in spite the material and technology challenges that the EV sector faces as of now, there are certain definite triggers that are pushing EVs into the fast lane, such as:

  • Key EV technologies, such as batteries, are improving faster than expected.

  • Greater regulatory pressure at national, regional and city levels is driving early adoption of what is perceived to be a new norm.

  • Intense investment into EV programmes and start-up companies from a variety of sources, both traditional automotive companies and new entrants to the market.

  • A growing network of EV charging stations is making it easier and more convenient to use an EV.

Trends and solutions

According to industry experts, creating a digital twin of the product and the production can solve the challenges of EV manufacturing by blurring the boundaries between design and manufacturing, merging the physical and digital worlds. Digital twins of the production process and production system are the key to driving operational efficiency improvements through factory of the future concepts. These digital twins capture the physical asset performance data from products and factories in operation. The data from smart connected products in the field and factory equipment is aggregated, analysed and integrated into product design as actionable information, creating a completely closed loop decision environment for continuous optimisation.

This comprehensive digital twin comprises many digital threads that weave together cross-domain engineering between mechanical, electrical and software domains along the product and production lifecycle. Data analytics, cloud, and Internet of Things (IoT) enable closed loop performance engineering that spurs continuous improvement of design, manufacturing and performance. Such a comprehensive digital twin enables manufacturers to plan and implement manufacturing processes for new lightweight designs and modular vehicle platforms while reducing the costs of battery production and coordinating across deep supplier ecosystems.

Battery production

Reducing the cost of battery production is a critical step to the success of EVs. Integrated digital solutions can help battery producers achieve cost-effective batteries by connecting battery design with manufacturing and establishing a digital thread throughout the flow. Advanced battery design and simulation solutions enable engineers to optimise cell design and performance at early stages of development. Cell geometry can be defined and optimised in the context of the battery modules and final package. Then, battery cells, modules and packs can be evaluated in a virtual production process, enabling engineers to design flexible, efficient processes across all fields of cell, module and pack assembly. This caters to the market demands for improvements in efficiency and cost along the entire value chain in battery manufacturing.

Ground realities

Even as the production of EV enters new phases and experiments are conducted to make EVs perform in a cost-effective manner while ensuring environmental sustainability, reports emerge almost on a daily basis that indicate increasing acceptance of EVs. For instance, GreenCell Mobility recently announced the brand name of the first pan-India inter-city electric mobility coach brand. ‘NueGo’ is aimed at the new-age traveller and is India’s first inter-city electric mobility bus brand with initial plans of having services across 24 cities. The company announced its plans for roll-out of 750 premium AC e-buses across key inter-city routes in southern, northern and western India.

The company will have 100 electric buses transiting through various cities in Madhya Pradesh and 200 electric buses transiting through Delhi NCR. The gross CO2 emission avoided over the lifetime of these buses would be 56,154 tonnes. Commenting on this development, Ashok Agarwal, Managing Director and CEO, GreenCell Mobility, said, “Electric bus adoption has gained traction in India and multiple cities with state governments have embarked on the journey of electrifying their bus-based transport system. This has been further accelerated by the Government of India’s Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles in India (FAME) Phase – II scheme.”

Meanwhile, in a major development, Olectra Greentech Limited has successfully begun trials of its 6 x 4 heavy-duty electric tipper in India as part of its initiative to expand its product portfolio in the country. A pioneer and market leader in electric bus manufacturing, Olectra Greentech is now entering into truck manufacturing and the prototype under trial has been built on its heavy-duty electric tipper platform. A first-of-its-kind truck in India, the Olectra tipper, with a 220 km range on a single charge, is built with a heavy-duty bogie suspension tipper capable of managing gradability of more than 25% for scaling slopes on roads with elevation.

The manufacturing for the vehicle will be scaled up at the company’s state-of-the-art facility coming up on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Speaking on the development, K V Pradeep, Chairman and Managing Director, Olectra Greentech, said, “Being a pioneer in electric mobility in India, Olectra Greentech has now begun heavy-duty tipper trials. This is a first-of-its-kind truck in India and this breakthrough gives us immense pleasure and is a moment of pride for us. As the fossil fuel costs are skyrocketing, electric trucks will be a game-changer in the segment. This first-of-its-kind tipper has many high-performance features.”

Government initiatives

India is one of the countries aiming for at least 30% new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030. To align policies in that direction, the central government has taken many steps to develop and promote the EV ecosystem, including Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME II) scheme, production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme, and others. Under the FAME II scheme, the government has already installed 350 new EV fast-charging stations across the country in cities like Chandigarh, Delhi, Jaipur, Ranchi and Agra. Also, the Ministry of Power has prescribed at least one charging station to be present in a grid of 3 km and at every 25 km on both sides of the highways. Work is underway to set up charging stations for electric vehicles at 22,000 of the 70,000 petrol pumps across the country. These developments will open the sector for investors, manufacturers and operators as new business models emerge.

The FAME II stimulus has been helpful in the growth of EVs as it reduces the high sticker price of vehicles that run on lithium-ion batteries. Moreover, the government has rolled out PLI schemes to increase the confidence of lithium-ion battery manufacturers. In addition, the move to allow 100% FDI under the automatic route in the automobile sector will further expand the horizon of growth to shape up an optimistic future for the Indian automotive sector. The EV market in India is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 36% to ₹50,000 crore by 2025, according to Energy Storage Alliance’s estimates. In the coming days, the segment will surely witness the launch of many long-range and powerful road-ready EVs for both passenger and goods mobility.

Image Gallery

  • A growing network of EV charging stations is making it easier and more convenient to use an EV

  • Integrated digital solutions can help battery producers achieve cost-effective batteries by connecting battery design with manufacturing and establishing a digital thread throughout the flow

  • Advanced battery design and simulation solutions enable engineers to optimise cell design and performance at early stages of development

  • As OEMs and suppliers ramp up EV production, more robots will be used to assemble smaller parts and subassemblies, in addition to the entire motor itself

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