September 2021 alone saw just short of 33k UK sales of electric vehicles, a whopping 49.4% increase compared to the same time last year. Consumers’ trust in EV is growing fast, with the environmental and financial advantages driven home in nearly every advertising campaign. The population is becoming more curious, and consequently educated, about the harmful effects of our activities on the planet. After all, an EV is only as green as its manufacturing.
Typically, thinking about vehicle factories induces images of large, industrial buildings with smoke billowing from a dozen or so towers. Plenty of noisy machinery, plenty of bright rooms, plenty of fumes. Stereotypically, they don’t scream ‘green’.
However, on the race to electric, both corporate consciousness and consumer interest surrounding green manufacturing is mounting. Traditional practices are taking a U-turn, with the appetite to incorporate advancing technologies rife. The automotive sector has long championed the digitalisation of production lines for efficiency benefits, and now it’s beginning to realise the green benefits, too.
The rise of the smart factory and its use of the Industrial Internet of things not only increases visibility across the entire production process, but also lends to a plethora of beneficial environmental bi-products. By continually collecting and sharing data through connected machines, devices, and production systems, the overall automotive manufacturing process can be refined.
Streamlining productivity leads on to increasing energy efficiency which, in turn, decreases excess use. What’s more, via predictive maintenance, manufacturers have the ability to pinpoint machinery that isn’t working optimally and/or requires attention. Overall, this lessens the need for surplus energy, in terms of both power and person.
The heart of the EV
Making adjustments to the factories in which we produce the EVs is one gear-change. But there’s another significant element that needs putting into gear to truly improve the whole production line ecosystem: the EV-powering lithium-ion battery pack.
Batteries contain metals which we mine from the Earth. In coming years, tens of kilograms of materials will need extracting for the hundreds of millions of EVs that are to hit our roads. And here’s where we hit a bit of a stumbling block. Whilst the running of an EV has virtually little to no adverse impact on the environment, its battery does. A typical single car lithium-ion battery pack contains around 8kg of lithium, 35kg of nickel, 20kg of manganese, and 14kg of cobalt. Mining these metals has harsh effects on the environment; lithium can be extracted from rock and brines, requiring vast amounts of energy and water respectively.
Overcoming battery domination
In a world soon to be dominated by EVs, materials scientists have their work cut out. Especially considering the price of a lithium-ion battery is now up to 30 times cheaper than when they first entered the market in the ‘90s, even despite battery production levels increasing! Fortunately for the planet, laboratories are beginning to experiment with low-cobalt, or even cobalt-free, materials in attempts to address issues with raw sources.
Looking to improve battery recycling is another major area of research, too. If we can effectively reuse old battery materials, we can work to eradicate any chances of supply or material depletion problems. The successful recycling of batteries relies on scale; as more and more batteries go into circulation, more and more will reach the end of their lives. Recycling will scale up in huge numbers, making the process more efficient, and improving an overall business case for it.
The factory of the future
The future landscape of the practice of automotive manufacturing is one that has its work cut out. But it’s one that’s ready to race towards the checked flag, with exciting advancements on the 3D-printing front helping to reduce the industry’s waste and carbon emissions, too. Revannth N Murugesan, Founder and CEO of 3D-printing company Antonym, explains:
“To truly make transportation sustainable, we need to focus on holistic sustainability. 3D-printing radically reduces the energy required to produce electric car parts, and enables a digitised supply chain. Localised manufacturing is both closer to the customer and also at the very point of demand. Such a distributed manufacturing model cuts down two of the most cost-intensive and carbon-intensive steps in the supply chain, i.e. warehousing and the transportation of parts. This ensures that an electric car, fitted with 3D-printed parts, has done the least amount of damage possible to the environment before it reaches the hands of consumers.”
It goes without saying that it all comes back to energy. By incorporating a comprehensive energy monitoring system, the automotive sector is equipped with the insight it needs to fully optimise processes now and for the future; the mass adoption of EVs is on the very-near horizon. In line with pressure from regulators and consequent generous government subsidies, it’s an industry taking electrification seriously. As we drive into an electric future, let’s make sure it’s not just the output that’s good for the planet.