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Taking your electric vehicle from concept to the assembly line: 5 questions to ask before it’s too late
You’re planning an EV...
So… you’re somewhere in the planning/development phase of a new battery-powered electric vehicle. Perhaps it’s a passenger vehicle for the retail market, a commercial utility vehicle, or a special-purpose industrial vehicle. You may be discovering that the path from concept to manufacture can be long, complex and filled with surprises. At FEV, we partner with global vehicle producers, from startups to established OEMs. As many of our partners have discovered, EV designs are very different from conventional vehicles requiring an unprecedented level of integration, as well as a host of unique considerations when compared to their ICE (internal combustion engine) powered counterparts.
Before you get too far along on your development path, there are questions you should ask, and decisions that you will have to make that can have a positive or negative impact on deadlines, costs, and your project’s chances of success.
#1: When should you make platform decisions?
In any vehicle development program, your choice of vehicle platform is foundational. In the “old days” of conventional vehicle design, the propulsion system could be developed before, or apart from, the rest of the vehicle design. In contrast, many EV designs essentially mandate that the propulsion system be developed in conjunction with the rest of the platform. Vehicle systems are highly integrated therefore it is crucial to have various engineering and design teams collaborate and communicate in order to develop the appropriate holistic approach.
The early decisions on the platform and propulsion system will affect downstream decisions on plant tooling and design, which can ultimately drive costs up or down, and either accelerate or delay your EV’s time-to-market.
#2: How will you integrate the batteries?
Another significant challenge of EV design is the integration of the energy storage system. The optimum strategy will depend on a specific vehicle’s application, intended use, platform origins (i.e. dedicated EV vs. ICE conversion), and other factors. Batteries can be underfloor, in the ‘spine’ or ‘tunnel’, under the rear seat or under the hood or trunk. In dedicated EV designs, the batteries are integrated into the chassis, employing either a skateboard or ‘rolling chassis’ design. The battery pack can also serve as a structural component of the chassis (as engines are in some motorcycles).
#3: Can design creativity simplify production and help you scale up?
As your design and planning proceeds, take the opportunity to review big-picture decisions and see whether there are opportunities for innovation and creativity that can simplify production and drive savings in manufacturing.
It’s one thing to produce a limited number of demonstration vehicles, and another thing entirely to ramp up production to meet surging customer demand or achieve economies of scale. Even well-known EV startups have struggled to scale up for series production. Vehicle manufacturing is a labyrinth of interconnected processes, components, supply chains and technologies. But it is possible to plan ahead and prepare contingencies for sales success, and enhanced profitability through DFM (designing for manufacturing) and DFA (designing for assembly). Ways to simplify and plan for scaling up may involve process automation, building strategic partnerships, or vertically integrating key elements of production.
For example, EV OEM Arrival has implemented a number of creative cost-cutting strategies. They build their electric fleet vehicles in “microfactories”: small, lower-cost manufacturing plants. They fabricate their vans and buses from coloured plastic composite, which eliminates the need for multi-million-dollar paint shops at each microfactory. They have simplified their vehicles’ instrumentation and by eliminating extra displays, buttons and switches, they have reduced the associated wiring, modules, and other components; resulting in major manufacturing savings without removing value-generating core features.
At FEV, we have designed, or contributed to the design of nearly every type of EV architecture. We are experienced in interpreting client requirements and developing effective, efficient, and manufacturable platforms that scale.
#4: Where should you use automation/robotics to reduce costs?
Today, every large-scale manufacturing project involves a discussion of robotics and automated assembly. While automation is the future, you need to make careful decisions on which components or processes would benefit most from automation, and what level of automation is worth the investment for your scope and scale of manufacturing.
Look to some of the well-established “startup” OEMS: in their early days of ramping up to commercial-scale production, the company claimed that robots would perform the majority of the assembly process. In the end, the story was, and still is, very different.
The factors to consider include:
- The cost of local human capital (compared to the cost of setting up and operating automation) in your manufacturing region
- How easily automation technologies can be reconfigured for multiple tasks or multiple product iterations
- Whether you are effectively designing for mass manufacturing and applying DFM and DFA principles
If you plan an automated assembly line, you will need to partner with robotics experts, who will advise you whether you’ll need your own customized robotics system (another investment to budget for) or whether off-the-shelf general-purpose robotics could meet your needs.
Ultimately, the automation decision is one of investment priorities: you must decide where your investment capital has the maximum impact.
#5: Could you ramp up faster by outsourcing to contract manufacturers?
For any new player in the EV industry, manufacturing at scale is an enormous challenge. Global supply chains have to be managed and synchronized which can affect even the largest manufacturers, as we’ve seen with the recent chip shortage.
For many smaller manufacturers and startups, manufacturing at scale is only achievable by partnering with proven contract manufacturers. Contract manufacturing, with a partner such as Foxconn, is a tradeoff: while it reduces upfront costs, the manufacturers charge a percentage of your future revenues.
Outsourcing can affect your control over component or subsystem quality, which may affect your reputation, and customer and market perception which goes far beyond a simple cost calculation.
Ultimately, this is a complex business decision that involves trusting your network of partners in component supply, assembly, shipping, and so on.
Israel-based REE Automotive chose contract manufacturing for an advanced corner module for electric and autonomous vehicles. According to CEO Daniel Barel, it met their most pressing need. “The biggest challenge for new players like us is at the end of the day you need to manufacture at automotive grade and automotive scale.”
Fisker, another EV startup, found that the buying power and market presence of the large contract manufacturers was a significant advantage when it came to acquiring components. Said CEO Henrik Fisker about their partners, “They will get all the equipment they need. They have the capital. They have the reputation.”
Looking for answers? It starts with a conversation
Wherever you are along the EV development path, it’s not too late for a meaningful conversation with the experts at FEV. However, earlier is better, to avoid errors that can impact your entire development cycle. We can advise you on any every phase of EV development, from initial concept through to full-scale production, including software and propulsion system development and vehicle engineering.
Why trust our opinion?
FEV is a global partner in the development of sustainable mobility and energy solutions. Our specialties cover vehicle development from concept through production, including intelligent software development, sustainable propulsion system development, and full vehicle engineering. We have partnered in the design and development of dozens of projects, from E-drives to battery and vehicle engineering, to complete vehicle development, for major global manufacturers. We serve the entire mobility ecosystem, including:
- on-road and off-road applications
- light, medium and heavy duty
- agriculture, construction, mining, and industrial vehicles
- rail, marine and aerospace applications