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Published on February 12th, 2020 | by Chanan Bos

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Biggest Tesla News Of The Year: Next-Gen Battery Cell Production In Fremont

February 12th, 2020 by  


Biggest Tesla News Of The Year: Next-Gen Battery Cell Production In Fremont

Image credit: Chanan Bos, CleanTechnica

For Tesla it’s all about vertical integration. Anything that doesn’t meet Tesla’s stringent quality standards, they bring in house. It’s why a lot of Tesla’s hardware nearly meets or exceeds military standards without the usual increase in price. We knew this day was coming last April when we spoke to an inside source at Giga Nevada. Tesla and Panasonic were at odds and suspended Giga Nevada investments and it was clear Tesla had to act.

We discovered that while Panasonic has the best battery manufacturing technology, they were unable to meet Tesla’s high quality standards. The result was a lot of the cells produced by Panasonic being rejected by Tesla. The slightest imperceptible dent in the case and a cell gets rejected. That is the moment we became convinced that Tesla is not just going to stand by idly and today we have the FIRST proof of that. 

A lot of people believed that Tesla’s acquisitions of companies like Maxwell was solid proof that Tesla was going to make its own battery cells, but the best way to think of battery cell production is as a giant puzzle and that was only a piece of it. Today, a lot of pieces are still missing but we now finally have enough pieces of the puzzle to see what the final picture will look like. 

Model S production line at the Tesla Fremont Factory

The Model S production line at the Tesla Fremont Factory. Image credit: Kyle Field, CleanTechnica

Job Listings Uncover Tesla’s Next Gen Battery Cell Plans

Tesla’s website recently listed some new jobs at Fremont, here are 3 crucial ones:

In all 3 cases the job description mentions a need to “accelerate our next-generation battery cell manufacturing program.” Rolling together the first paragraph of the three listings, Tesla’s ask is very clear:

“Tesla’s cell manufacturing engineering group is looking for a highly-motivated equipment development engineer (and a Metrology engineer) to accelerate our next-generation battery cell manufacturing program.”

The Equipment Development Engineer and Senior Equipment Development Engineer role description says: “This role will be involved in the design, development, commissioning and ramping of high-throughput equipment, while working in a cross-functional team to test, validate, and roll-out process and product design changes.”

The Metrology Engineer will look at the longer term implications of the new products over a longer horizon and lead them to the initial start of production. “This role will identify, develop and scale up manufacturing metrology systems within a cross-functional engineering team responsible for the development lifecycle and launch into manufacturing.”

Farther along, the job description speaks to the importance of battery cells for Tesla and that the recruited person will have the chance to make “meaningful contributions” to Tesla’s products. What is truly interesting however is that the first responsibility of the development engineers is to “drive design, commissioning ramp of a complex manufacturing tool that is the first of its kind at Tesla.” 

While the first two responsibilities of the metrology engineer are to “drive development of new/innovative manufacturing metrology from proof-of-concept through to full scale production to improved battery quality, performance and/or cost.” Quality and cost are the key focal points of the role, with Tesla pushing to achieve what Panasonic could not. The second bullet speaks to this, with responsibility to “ensure production lines have the right process controls which are well-defined, high throughput, robust and low-cost. Drive metrology commissioning on new production lines.”

What this indicates is that right now, Tesla is starting its lessons in mass production of battery cells. However, like all products this means they have (once again) designed a new and improved battery (without Panasonic) of which they can probably make samples of, perhaps even enough for a few demo products at high cost per cell like the new roadster or semi prototypes, but are not yet able to mass produce.

The layout of Tesla’s Fremont Factory. Image credit: Chanan Bos, CleanTechnica

In addition to these jobs there are slew of interesting job listings at Fremont although none of those mention the “next-generation battery cell”. Nonetheless, the descriptions of those jobs do indicate completely new jobs that are not related to designing the chemical formula or the product. Here is a good example, a job listing for a “Process Engineer, Cell Engineering

“As Tesla continues to expand its business, we’re increasing our dependence on critical materials for batteries. As such, Tesla is looking to build a team of mechanical, chemical and process engineers to help find innovative process pathways to drive down cost and reduce the fundamental cost of battery material synthesis and process equipment.”

The reason most manufacturers have chosen pouch or prismatic cells is because they are cheaper to manufacture and easier to place in a pack than cylindrical cells. The only way Tesla has been able to continuously bring down the cost per cell is through economies of scale and by inviting Panasonic to work with Tesla under the same roof. Tesla and Panasonic co-developed the chemical formula currently used in 2170 cells and Tesla was the one that found out that for automotive purposes, the 2170 cell size has advantages over the 18650 cells when it comes to cooling and cost.

Side note: the 2170 cell cooling advantage claim has been disputed due to the battery’s larger diameter, however the Model 3s ability to rapidly accelerate multiple times without loss of performance is much better than that of Tesla’s Model S and X so this factor remains an uncertainty.

Hiring engineers to “drive down cost and reduce the fundamental cost of battery material synthesis” is something companies do when manufacturing battery cells at scale. To date, these functions have been on the Panasonic side of the wall in its dealings with Tesla.

If Tesla was simply improving the chemical formulation of cells, it would be looking for more effective chemistry while the responsibility of this “Process Engineer” is to, “develop schematic and detailed designs for novel chemical processing systems.” This person will need to, “work closely with battery materials R&D team for introduction of novel materials and new process methods at larger scale.” The new scope makes it clear this job is not just an addition of the R&D team and that the R&D team is passing on the baton to the new “Cell Engineering” team.

Elon Musk talks about Giga Shanghai at the Tesla Model Y unveiling event. Image credit: Chanan Bos, CleanTechnica

So Where Is Tesla Today?

These new job listings make it clear Tesla is moving on to the next phase when it comes to making its own battery cells. Tesla Battery Investor Day is still a good 2 months away, so until then, let me help you place Tesla on a timeline. According to Tesla’s Q4 guidance, we know Giga Nevada when fully built out to 35GWh as planned will have enough cell and pack production capacity to support Model 3 and Model Y production at Fremont in 2020.

Tesla has ordered 2170 cells with the same chemical formula it developed with Panasonic a few years ago from LG Chem in China to power Model 3s produced at GF3 Shanghai. This means there will be no significant mass production of next-generation cells in 2020. However we could expect a very manual high cost line up and running at Fremont that will produce enough next-generation batteries for the limited production of Semi trucks Tesla has promised for 2020.

It is important to note that this early production line would be very high cost per cell and much more manual than a standard battery cell production line. Tesla is literally figuring out the fundamentals of how to build cells as it redesigns not just the cells, electrodes, and chemistry, but the new “machine that builds the machine.” It is the equivalent of the first Model S production line in 2012.

Once the production line has been stabilized and Tesla produces the highly valuable next-gen cells at high cost, they will likely invite Grohmann automation engineers to have a look and find ways to automate that production. The first “Cell Engineering” job postings in Fremont started sometime between January 13th and January 28th, some postings have already been filled and more have appeared since. Currently (and not very surprisingly) no cell manufacturing job postings are available for Grohmann Automation in Germany.

“Cell Engineering” jobs have appeared in Palo Alto headquarters before Fremont but a really interesting find is that Giga Berlin also had a job posting for a “Staff Technical Program Manager, Cell Engineering.” 

Here are a few interesting excerpts from the job posting (emphasis added):

“Tesla’s Cell Engineering group is looking for a highly motivated individual to program manage new cell manufacturing and equipment engineering projects. This is a cross-functional role that requires coordination between many different groups within and outside of Tesla. You will drive the development and deployment of new manufacturing equipment and processes, as well as planning and execution of new cell manufacturing expansion within Europe. Additionally build productive relationships with external suppliers and relevant agencies.”

Image credit: Chanan Bos | CleanTechnica

Conclusion

The fact that this kind of job posting for Berlin is already listed, means Giga Berlin will be a more ambitious project than Giga Shanghai. Berlin might very well be the first of Tesla’s Giga Family where we will see production from cell to car from the very beginning. That would make it the blueprint for all future “full stack” Gigafactories elsewhere in the world as Tesla continues to scale. It will likely take much longer for Tesla to develop cost effective lines at scale sufficient to supply Model 3/Y or even what we like to call the future autonomous “Tesla Model Omega”.

The timeline we expect to see (in Elon time, if all goes well) is the start of a trial run in the middle of this year, maybe even in April considering Elon’s words about battery investor day. This would in turn lead to a limited production run of Semi’s from Fremont. Considering Tesla has 2016 schematics for additional buildings that do not yet exist at Fremont, Semi or Cell Production could be there. Another option is to simply produce the battery cell manufacturing lines at Fremont. Doing this would give the trucks full of Giga Nevada 2170 packs coming to Fremont something to take with them on their way back to Giga Nevada, though for now, this is speculation at best.

Considering the construction speed Tesla has demonstrated at Giga Nevada, we expect the expansion of the Giga Nevada building to start sometime this summer. Installation of the first V2 Tesla Cell lines in Nevada would follow around the beginning of next year. It’s very possible that the real cost effective lines by Grohmann automation will be V3 and follow in 2022 though even this timeline still feels like “Elon time.”

This entire timeline is based on the assumption that the next generation batteries are needed for Tesla Semi production and that Fremont only has enough room to produce cells in limited quantities. In reality, we think the limited 2020 production Tesla promised might be on track and that Semi mass production availability in 2021 very much depends on their success at ramping up battery production beyond current capacity. It’s also worth noting that the Semi prototype that was seen at the Model Y unveiling appeared to be less polished than the Model Y itself at the time. This is not a problem, just an interesting fact about the relative development stage of Semi.

One thing remains clear, Panasonic and partners like LG Chem will still be crucial for production of the current generation Model 3/Y and Powerpack cell production in the near future, just don’t expect Panasonic to receive additional space at Giga Nevada or more demand from Tesla than the theoretical 50GWh limit. 

There will be a follow up article in the next few days with more details and analysis of this new information that will include everything we know about the next generation batteries Tesla is apparently developing together with John Goodenough who is well known as the “father of the lithium ion battery.” 
 

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About the Author

Chanan grew up in a multicultural, multi-lingual environment that often gives him a unique perspective on a variety of topics. He is always in thought about big picture topics like AI, quantum physics, philosophy, Universal Basic Income, climate change, sci-fi concepts like the singularity, misinformation, and the list goes on. Currently, he is studying creative media & technology but already has diplomas in environmental sciences as well as business & management. His goal is to discourage linear thinking, bias, and confirmation bias whilst encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and helping people understand exponential progress. Chanan is very worried about his future and the future of humanity. That is why he has a tremendous admiration for Elon Musk and his companies, foremost because of their missions, philosophy, and intent to help humanity and its future. He sees Tesla as one of the few companies that can help us save ourselves from climate change.



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