By Vince Canino, COO
ESS was founded to take on one of the biggest challenges of our generation: transitioning the global energy system to clean, renewable energy. Our innovative technology enables deep decarbonization by enabling intermittent wind and solar energy to power the grid whenever needed, even when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. But, as with most new technologies, scaling from early production to commercial-scale manufacturing is no simple task.
At our manufacturing facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, we are hard at work implementing advanced automation technologies and leveraging Lean manufacturing principles to accelerate production and ensure quality.
Building First-of-a-kind Iron Flow Battery Modules with Precision
ESS systems are high-precision products, so everything we do must meet exacting standards. As we scale our manufacturing, we’re making great strides to improve product consistency and ensure quality across the value chain.
To identify opportunities for process improvement, we started with the manufacture of our battery modules and found numerous opportunities to improve efficiency and accelerate production.
On our original semi-automated production lines, we have now implemented control software that better aligns processes with the sequence of operations. This reduces idle time and improves utilization of key equipment – if a robotic arm is not in motion, it’s wasting production time and money.
Meanwhile, we brought our new fully automated production line into operation, completing commissioning in December 2022. This new line incorporates further improvements: laser welding and automated assembly reduce waste and cost while improving product consistency. Robots now ensure electrodes are precisely placed in every module, replacing a less reliable manual process. Thanks in part to these improvements, we have already increased labor productivity 2-3x on battery module manufacturing and increased build capacity in Wilsonville to 800 MWh per year.
But, robots cannot build batteries by themselves. The process still requires human involvement so as we continue to identify opportunities to improve, we must focus on building an industry-leading team.
Building a team of experts allows us to gain the depth of knowledge or “know how” that it will take to deliver world class energy storage systems. For example, our battery modules require precision plastic parts. To ensure quality, we are constantly collaborating with our injection molding vendors to develop the expertise to make these intricate parts, some of which are amongst the largest precision plastic parts with the most stringent tolerances being built today.
Implementing Lean Manufacturing and 5S + S Principles
Lean is more than a production process. It is about the ability to see waste in all its forms and then vigilantly eliminate that waste. Finding and eliminating waste isn’t just a process that is taught – it has to be a way of thinking. We work to eliminate days, then hours and then seconds out of every step of our manufacturing processes to allow our people to focus on just those steps in the process that add value. Lean manufacturing is based on five core principles:
- Sort: identify items placed in the workplace and decide how to best allocate them
- Set: organize the workplace to be as functional as possible
- Shine: adhere to a frequent cleaning schedule
- Standardize: create rules and instructions for executing processes regularly
- Sustain: conduct regular inspections and measure results
These relatively simple principles, known as “5S” can have a significant impact on productivity and workforce morale. For example, we applied the Lean approach to material flow in our facility, leading to a reorganization of our warehouse and eliminating waste in picking parts needed for the production floor. This saved hours of time for our techs by reducing the need to search for parts. Another simple yet effective Lean approach is to organize our workstations with tool boards that only hold the tools needed at that station. These boards also have outlines to indicate tool placement, ensuring that technicians can quickly find what is needed and identify missing tools. These are simple yet highly effective approaches that reduce time wasted searching for needed tools and parts.
The 5S principles are at the core of Lean but at ESS, we add a sixth S: Safety. Safety is central to everything we do and is complementary to Lean principles. Improving and standardizing practices is one of the best ways to ensure a safe and predictable work environment for our most important asset, our employees.
Delivering Energy Storage Solutions
The effects of these improvements are easy to see: We built more units in Q4 2022 than in the entire preceding year. And we’re just getting started.
As government policies and corporate climate commitments increase the penetration of renewables, we know that storage with longer durations will be essential to provide a resilient, reliable and sustainable energy system. With our laser focus on manufacturing precision and performance, ESS will deliver the safest and most sustainable long-duration energy systems to our customers worldwide, serving a multitude of use cases and catalyzing the clean energy future.
To learn more about how we manufacture our long-duration energy storage solutions, take a virtual tour of our factory.