Charging Up U.S. Manufacturing

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A worker performs complex assembly of the BlinkTM Level 2 Charging Stations at Roush Manufacturing's Livonia, Michigan facility.
Photo courtesy of Roush Manufacturing.

A Michigan firm begins mass manufacturing of U.S.-made EV charging stations

American-made electric vehicle (EV) charging stations began rolling off the assembly line at a Michigan manufacturing plant in February, when ECOtality, Inc. began mass producing its BlinkTM Level 2 Charging Stations at Roush Manufacturing's 126,000-square-foot Livonia facility. The milestone marked an important step toward creating the charging infrastructure network that ECOtality is deploying as part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-backed EV Project. ECOtality's subsidiary, ECOtality North America, Inc., was selected by the DOE in August 2009 to receive a grant of approximately $99.8 million to undertake the largest deployment of EV charging infrastructure in U.S. history.

"Throughout each step of The EV Project, we've seen unprecedented consumer demand for electric vehicles, and partners like Roush have played a key role as we've brought our smart charging stations to market," said Don Karner, president of ECOtality, in a statement. "Roush's stellar reputation and automotive OEM experience made them an ideal partner as we made the move to full-scale manufacturing. Together we are excited to bring an innovative, American-made charging station to EV drivers nationwide."

As project manager of the EV Project, ECOtality will oversee the installation of 15,000 commercial and residential charging stations in 16 cities and major metropolitan areas in six states and the District of Columbia. The company will monitor the energy usage and output of charging stations to determine a viable method for mass adoption of electric vehicles and empower the smart grid. The project, which will provide an EV infrastructure to support the deployment of 8,300 EVs, is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy through a federal stimulus grant of $114.8 million, made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The grants are matched by private investment, bringing the total value of the project to approximately $230 million. ECOtality has already begun installing the Blink Residential Charging Stations in several states, including California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona.

ECOtality partnered with Roush in July 2010 to manufacture the company's flagship Blink home and commercial charging stations. The agreement marked a major move for Roush--a global powerhouse in cutting-edge product development, composition, creation, and testing--into the electric vehicle industry. It's seen as an important evolutionary step for the automotive industry and Roush, which modified one of its existing automotive facilities to support the developing EV industry. With the opening of the facility, Roush has been able to rehire employees that were previously laid off.

"Roush is an excellent example of a Michigan company that has reinvented itself and is successfully applying the power of Michigan to the next emerging industry," said Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. "Partnerships like these help us to ensure Michigan stays on the leading edge of technology and enhances our economic development efforts."

According to Rick Trotter, director of manufacturing operations at the Livonia facility, the processes used to manufacture the Blink charging stations include sheet metal fabrication for the chassis, injection molding for the cases, and complex assembly. Roush manufactures all components for the Blink housing and cord reel, and purchases the electronics from outside suppliers. The company performs all assembly at the Livonia facility.

"We're taking technology that's built into them, such as circuit boards, touch screens, metering systems, and switching systems, and incorporating them into an assembly," Trotter told Design2Part Magazine. "As we build them, we force function the assembly so that it will be capable, durable, and reliable. The chassis is stamped and laser cut into parts."

Roush (www.roush.com) reconfigured its existing automotive manufacturing facility to take on the project, installing a 10,000-square-foot flexible manufacturing line in support of its modular approach to build complex assemblies. Trotter says the modular line allows fast changeover to support the manufacture of many different products on the same line. The company's core business processes, such as injection molding, feed the flexible manufacturing line.

"Modular workstations are dedicated to the product, assuring control of the process," said Trotter. "The modular approach is innovative, since it maintains total control of the process, materials, and equipment used by line workers. Forced function testing is required throughout the process to confirm that the product is durable, reliable, and robust. The test equipment is also incorporated into the workstations."

According to Trotter, the material flow reduces inventory costs, shipping costs, and the impact of any quality issues. "Through the reduction of work-in-process, there are minimal cost-related issues from a quality perspective," he said.

Evan Lyall, CEO of Roush Enterprises, Inc., said that Roush is very excited about its role in manufacturing the EV charging stations. "ECOtality and the DOE have partnered to develop an outstanding product," he said. "We welcome the opportunity to demonstrate our ability to adapt our product development and integrations expertise to an emerging industry sector."

The home charging stations reportedly offer several advantages over conventional charging stations, including advanced energy monitoring capabilities that allow homeowners to optimize their energy usage and charge their vehicles when rates are lowest. The Blink Network charger interface is the hub where users can receive information about their EV and Blink Home Charging Station, including charge status, statistics, and history.

ABB Invests $10 Million and Will Supply Power Electronics

ECOtality also announced in January that it has secured a $10 million equity investment from ABB and has entered into a North American manufacturing agreement that establishes a collaborative and strategic supplier relationship between the ABB Group and ECOtality. The agreement establishes ABB as the preferred supplier of ECOtality's power electronics and component parts in North America. ABB and ECOtality will work together to develop innovative charging technologies for electric vehicles (EV) that incorporate the advanced functionalities of ECOtality's BlinkTM EV charging stations, currently available through the Blink Network. ECOtality will use the net proceeds of the investment as working capital to support the continuing requirements of the EV Project and as funding to meet its anticipated expansion.

ECOtality CEO Jonathan Read said that the company is pleased to be working with ABB to further expand the possibilities of electric transportation and make mass-consumer adoption a reality. "Our North American manufacturing agreement with ABB will allow us to rapidly increase production and expand our business," he said in a statement announcing the agreement.

"Combining ECOtality's twenty-plus years of experience in electric transportation with ABB's expansive reach in power electronics and their strong relationship with international utilities will ensure we produce innovative and industry challenging EV charging solutions. This agreement will allow us to benefit from the extraordinary ABB global value chains, streamlines our sourcing and production capabilities, and allows for Blink charging systems to be powered by ABB's industry-leading power electronics."

Brice Koch, head of ABB Marketing and Customer Solutions, said that the partnership brings together ABB's experience in smart grids, renewable energy, and reliable, efficient power networks, with ECOtality's leadership in North America's growing market for electric vehicle infrastructure. "It is an ideal combination of skills that will provide the solutions customers are seeking to enable sustainable mobility while maintaining grid reliability," he said.

Both companies will also promote the use of ECOtality's EV Micro-ClimateTM process to develop EV infrastructure roll-out plans for various projects. The EV Micro-Climate process, developed in conjunction with The EV Project, is a systematic approach that evaluates a variety of regional factors that influence EV infrastructure deployment. Taking into consideration EV market data, transportation routes, population density and zoning, the process helps develop blueprints to allow for the smart deployment of charging stations.

ECOtality's current set of Blink EV charging solutions includes the Blink Level 2 Home Charger for residential use, as well as the Blink Level 2 Pedestal Charger and Blink DC Fast Charger for commercial, fleet, and public locations. Level 2 charging (240 volt AC input) is the primary and preferred method for charging in residential and public locations. The Level 2 Pedestal has what the company calls a "unique binary design" that provides ease of installation, convenient cable management for long reach and storage between uses, and intuitive connector docking. Its touch screen display provides charging status and statistics, enables users to find charging stations, and delivers status messages to the user's smartphone.

The Blink DC Fast Charger, introduced in October 2010, is reportedly capable of providing EVs with a full charge in less than 30 minutes. ECOtality will be mass producing its Blink DC Fast Chargers, utilizing ABB as the preferred supplier of electronics and component parts in North America.

All Blink charging stations include smart features that allow consumers and utility companies the ability to perform better energy management, smart meter management and interaction, and demand response capabilities. Additional capabilities are provided through the Blink Network, a web-portal that provides data about consumers' EVs, charging, and all Blink charging stations.

Wireless Connectivity

At the North American International Auto Show 2011 in January, ECOtality announced that it has partnered with Sprint Nextel to ensure connectivity on the BlinkTM electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. ECOtality will utilize the Sprint Command Center across its nationwide system of residential, commercial, and public charging stations to control Machine-to-Machine (M2M) provisioning, billing, device and service management, and to run the Blink Network.

"With the Sprint Command Center technology, our Blink EV charging stations are provided with the reliable wireless connectivity necessary to power the advanced capabilities of the Blink Network and ensure customer satisfaction," said ECOtality CEO Jonathan Read. "In addition, we are able to conduct a variety of business services, from monitoring to electronic payments. EV drivers will be able to depend on our chargers for smart operation, intuitive features, and reliable connectivity."

The Blink Network is accessible from any Blink charging station, over the internet, and on your smartphone. Because every Blink charging station is capable of communicating through a variety of methods, information is also available by wireless cellular, LAN/Ethernet, and Zigbee SEP 1.0 capable devices. From within the Blink Network, consumers will be able to locate Blink charging stations with GPS navigation, check charging station availability, and receive notifications of charge interruption and completion.

"Sprint is proud to provide advanced wireless network services that will allow ECOtality to monitor and manage their Blink Network," said Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint. "In addition, our wireless data network will help process a variety of electronic payments and deliver digital content for advertising and information."

Blink Home Charging Stations recently received Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listing. They are available to EV drivers and are free of charge to EV Project participants. The units can be installed indoors or outside at commercial locations, and both hardwire and plug-in charging stations are available. For more information, including product spec sheets, visit www.blinknetwork.com.

--Edited by D2P

 


Q & A with Richard Trotter

Design-2-Part caught up with Roush Manufacturing Director of Manufacturing Operations, Rick Trotter recently and spoke with him about Roush's role in manufacturing the Blink Home Charging Stations.

D2P: Did you have to buy new equipment and set up new systems to handle this new project?

Richard Trotter (RT): The company invested in the new flexible assembly modules to support this contract manufacturing and this product. Ten thousand square feet of the overall facility has now been dedicated to the manufacture of these complex assemblies. All other operating systems are in place for traceability and production management.

D2P: Why did ECOtality choose your company for this project?

RT: ECOtality went through a competitive bid process with Roush and other suppliers. Our company and ECOtality have previously worked on many projects together, so ECOtality was comfortable with the product development and delivery of our products. At the end of the day, we did win the business in a competitive bid process, which is required by the Department of Energy.

D2P: What are the advantages of sourcing this work to an American supplier, as compared to outsourcing this work overseas?

RT: The advantages of using an American supplier are based on our core competencies and capabilities. The other advantage would be our proximity to their facility. At many points in time, throughout the development process and design process, we spent significant amounts of time together, which would have been much more difficult if they would have had to do it overseas. The specifications, such as voltages and amperages, are U.S. government specifications and are designed for the American utility grid. The technical requirements are different in Europe and other parts of the world, so we are more accustomed to the standards used in the United States than someone abroad.

D2P: Is this your first attempt at doing work in the greentech marketplace?

RT: This is not our first attempt. We've been involved in products for fueling other vehicles, like with propane, and electric vehicle programs that we have developed. We are also participating in wind energy. So this new project fits right into the types of green products that we have worked on in the past.

D2P: What greentech projects would you like to get involved with in the future?

RT: We want to remain in the alternative fuel industry, which would be propane, and wind energy. We're looking to re-purpose our manufacturing for emerging technologies, especially since we're located in Michigan. Much of the manufacturing technology in Michigan was originally set up for the automotive industry. When we went after this project, we didn't try to adapt this new project to our assembly plant; we adapted the assembly plant to the project.

The facility that we're in is seven years old. It was originally designed and built for specialty products for the automotive industry. Currently, we are 50% automotive and 50% consumer products. The charging station is really in support of the DOE's study of the demands of electrical usage on the infrastructure as an R & D project, more so than an automotive project. In the next twelve months, we're going to be supplying 10,000 residential charging units and 6,000 commercial charging units. We'll be doing all of the mechanical manufacturing and assembly.

--D2P

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