Nissan offers rare peek into battery making
Nick Gibbs is UK Correspondent at Automotive News Europe.
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A rare tour of Nissan's UK battery plant demonstrated how tricky it is to build the product.
Nissan is very secretive about its commercially sensitive production processes. My visit this month was the first time Nissan let outsiders into the 420 million pounds (534 million euros) plant in Sunderland, northeast England, since it opened in 2013.
Security was tight. No cell phones were allowed and we were told nothing about the mysterious â€œaging room,“ where the battery cells sit for 32 days to properly activate the chemistry. â€œWe can't talk about it for commercial reasons,“ Jim Wilkinson, battery plant production manager, told me.
Cleanliness was far more stringent than any car-making operation I've seen. The flat, laptop-sized cells are created by layering anode and cathode and then filled with electrolyte. This happens in the clean room, which before entering we had to change shoes and cover up to the point that only our eyes were showing. We looked as though we were cleaning up after a particularly virulent epidemic.
We had to leave behind any click-activated ballpoint pens because the rubbing movement can send microscopic plastic particles into the air. Finally we passed through a four-person â€œair shower“ before entering the room, which is kept at less than 1 percent humidity.
Modules are assembled into a battery pack at Nissan's UK factory.
The plant has capacity to make 63,000 battery packs but will not come near that total this year. So far it has supplied about 2,000 units to Nissan's plant in Barcelona, Spain, for the e-NV200 electric van and for the full year will source battery packs for the roughly 15,000 Leafs EVs made at a plant next door. Colin Lawther, Nissan Europe's head of manufacturing and purchasing, said there are no plans to supply alliance partner Renault with batteries.
Lawther said the packs cost Nissan the same price to build whether they are made at the company's factories in Sunderland, the U.S. or Japan, where they are built in a joint venture with the battery's developer, NEC Corporation. The advantage to making them locally, he said, was to keep inventory levels low.
Nissan is reportedly weighing whether to have a supplier make the batteries at its facilities instead. Lawther said there are no plans to do that in the immediate future, but the process I saw is so different from car production that it's easy to understand why Nissan may abandon this sector. If that happens the supplier would inherit a highly polished, massively complicated and especially clean operation.
You can reach Nick Gibbs at [email protected]
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