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Sustainability is becoming increasingly important in battery production, and KUKA is taking up the challenge. They support this with robot models and customer-specific automation concepts.

Battery cell production for electric vehicles is proving to be much more complex than many believed during the initial stages of the technological revolution.

Planning now needs to include a closed loop. Cost-effective and environmentally friendly processes need to include planning and preparation for re-use or recycling.

Then there are the health aspects of dealing with lithium and other rare metals, as well as the electrolyte liquid,

Robots are being used for the loading, unloading and handling of (lithium-ion) batteries in order to protect workers.

Only robots can effectively meet the requirements of absolute cleanliness and ability to work for protracted periods in dry rooms. In order to protect the battery material from moisture, robots operate in a production environment with less than 0.04% humidity.

Turnkey supplier KUKA has developed sustainable automation solutions for the full battery production value chain.

Automotive Industries (AI) asked Dr. Joachim Döhner – Senior Director Business Development & Strategy Battery, KUKA Systems and Chairman of the VDMA Battery Production Division, what battery production solutions are provided by the company.

Döhner: There are several main areas in battery manufacture, which include cell, module and pack production, as well as technology and process development.

KUKA Systems is positioned as a solution provider in modular assembly, and as a component supplier we contribute to the complete supply chain.

So, we have some products that also go into cell production. For module & pack assembly, we typically use our products ourselves, but they also go into the solutions of other market players.

AI: Do you cover the full process chain?

Dr. Joachim Döhner - Senior Director Business Development & Strategy Battery, KUKA Systems and Chairman of the VDMA Battery Production Division
Dr. Joachim Döhner – Senior Director Business Development & Strategy Battery, KUKA Systems and Chairman of the VDMA Battery Production Division.

Döhner: For module & pack production and cell wrapping we act as a system integrator and cover the complete process chain.

We see our role as a solution provider, i.e., we do not just buy boxes and connect them, but really go deep in understanding the process.

Our engineers and consultants help customers make the right choices, select suitable suppliers, and find the right parameters.

At times we recommend solutions which we do not make ourselves, but which are readily available on the market.

There is no point in building a laser source, for example, when one can buy it from any number of suppliers.

But if there is an application where we cannot find a solution that fits for example, a specific requirement for applying an adhesive tape, then we have the capabilities to develop it ourselves.

The key processes that require some in-depth understanding include laser welding, or laser processes in general, the application of thermal pastes and glues, and surface preparation.

AI: What is KUKA System’s main focus?

Döhner: Providing production solutions in line with specific customer requirements.

The bulk of our business comes from the automotive industry.

Traditionally we have done a lot of body in white.

More recently, a significant part of the business comes from battery systems and related processes such as assembly of electrical drive units (EDU) or hybrid gear systems, and test systems for electric drives and batteries.

AI: The processes in battery production are very different: from cell production to high loads in the battery packs. Does KUKA Systems cover all these elements in-house?

Döhner: We cover module and pack assembly through all the weight classes, from a cylindrical cell of only a few grams to a complete pack of 800 kilograms.

For the very tiny stuff, such as cell assembly, we are not typically engaged as KUKA Systems.

But KUKA does supply cleanroom and dry room robots which are designed to protect the battery material from particle emissions.

AI: What experience do you have in battery production and what role do special technologies and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) play here?

Döhner: We have been engaged in battery production since about 2010.

Over the past 14 years we have been involved in more than 50 different projects in all parts of the world, mostly Southeast Asia or China, Europe, and North America.

In the early days the projects mainly involved experimental pilot setups.

Now, it is big volume systems.

Initially AMRs (autonomous mobile robots), or their predecessors, AGVs (automated guide vehicles), were mostly used to provide flexibility.

AGVs have evolved into AMRs, which are much easier to reroute and scale.

Now they are cost competitive as conveyors.

KUKA has developed its own AMR range.

We see the technology replacing rails and conveyors on many production lines.

AI: Why is production line flexibility so important?

Döhner: We are working in a very dynamic field.

I have not seen one single project where the initial specifications exactly corresponded with the final layout.

So, a certain level of flexibility is absolutely normal, and necessary.

Complications may arise with customers which are new to the battery technology, who believe that the flexibility of the robots means they do not need a detailed plan.

A powerful 800-volt total battery system for an all-electric SUV is manufactured at the plant – developed and assembled by KUKA Systems.
A powerful 800-volt total battery system for an all-electric SUV is manufactured at the plant – developed and assembled by KUKA Systems.

The solution is to find reasonable common ground together.

For example, customers have asked whether we can build a multi-product line that can handle pouch, cylindrical and prismatic cells.

The answer is that we can, given sufficient time and money, however, this is usually not economically viable. On the other hand, it is common to produce a single product with some variants, e.g., using cells from different suppliers, using different connecting patterns, such as parallel and serial on one production line.

AI: When will the European battery manufacturers catch up with their Chinese competitors?

Döhner: This is a very tricky question. It is the focus of a lot of debates among the community of European suppliers.

Fundamentally if, as in sport, you want to catch up, you have to move faster than your competitor.

That is quite a challenge in itself.

What I believe is a reasonable way forward is to be realistic in what is achievable and to be smart about how to achieve that.

It is a long shot to assume that we’ll be able to catch up in building turnkey cell assembly lines from European suppliers, unless the Asian market is completely cut off, which would not be a good idea at all.

So, we have to be smart about how we engage.

One smart way to get a foot in the door is to be very good at what you do.

Leverage existing experience in supplying specific key processes.

One example from the KUKA portfolio would be friction stir welding (FSW), which is an excellent process to join aluminum.

Typically, FSW is realized with modified CNC machines, but the KUKA FSW solution is leveraging a unique robot technology which provides cost benefits, is flexible and has a large working perimeter.

This technology has been adopted in markets all over the world.

That would be an example of a key technology where there is a competitive advantage with specific experience which is now finding an excellent application in battery manufacturing.

Other companies are following the same strategy, using laser, filter and drying technologies, or pumping vacuum generation being but a few examples.

These strategies are viable and beneficial for all parties involved, but aiming at a head-on competition for a complete turnkey line may be a little too ambitious at this time.

AI: What is next for KUKA Systems?

Döhner:  KUKA has been around for 125 years, which means we’ve seen a lot of technologies come and go.

We are fundamentally a service provider. We provide the automation and production solutions the market needs.

We will continue to keep our eyes and ears open, to identify the next technological waves and to prepare ourselves to add value there.

Current examples would be fuel cell technology and decarbonization of the building industry.

We will continue to meet the needs of industry, both within and outside the automotive sector.

AI: So. you’re well positioned for whatever challenges will come or may come?

Döhner: Yes, that is what we believe.

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