Our car experts choose every product we feature. We may earn money from the links on this page.
GM expands its Ultium battery pack and module assembly as a major supplier builds a new facility in Ohio.
“What we’re doing is world-changing, and we’ve only just begun,” said Andrew Hider, CEO of Canada-based ATS, a global automation solutions provider. He was in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Lewis Center to cut the ribbon for a highly automated 240,000-square-foot ATS battery assembly plant on the site. It will put together the modules and Ultium packs for General Motors vehicles, including the Hummer EV, an example of which sat next to the podium.
ATS’ battery capacity is growing rapidly to meet the burgeoning EV industry. ATS already has a similarly sized plant on the Lewis Center site, and another 180,000 square feet nearby. When completed in 15 months, the new plant will have lines to create modules from cells, lines to put those modules into packs, and lines for testing, seven in all. The company currently has 140 full-time employees and 100 contractors in Columbus.
The new GM work will add another 130 to 160 jobs, which is one reason Ohio Governor Mike DeWine was at the ceremony. If that doesn’t seem like a lot of new workers, consider that according to David Kelly, ATS’ vice president of sales, each 150-foot-wide, 1250-foot-long line will also employ 53 six-axis robots—the largest of which, nicknamed “Godzilla,” is capable of picking up a car and flipping it over.
Udo Panenka, president of ATS Industrial Automation, said that modern, high-volume battery module and pack assembly and test lines are capable of producing one battery pack per minute. And, as he told Autoweek last year, that high-volume pace is necessary if EVs are to ramp up to supply the world’s announced EV programs.
“I said then that the demand for battery packs will exceed available capacity if we don’t work smarter,” he said in Columbus. “And now that is becoming true. As the industry ramps up, a tremendous amount of automation equipment will be needed.” Panenka envisions the industry’s global EV capacity ramping up enormously in the next decade, at an automotive growth rate not seen since the 1920s.
Hider adds, “The need for automation in the battery space will be there for the foreseeable future.” ATS’ assembly lines also work in life sciences, in the regulated food industry, and in nuclear power—approximately 14 percent is automotive, Hider said. The company has 6000 workers internationally.
Ohio isn’t the first state that Americans think of as making cars—that’s Michigan. But the Buckeye State is a big player, producing Hondas, Fords, and Jeeps. “Ohio is red-hot,” said Governor DeWine, who got a ride in the Hummer EV around the shop floor. “We are a major auto and auto parts state, number one in engines and number two in transmissions and auto manufacturing. Sixty percent of the United States is within a day’s drive. And now we’re transitioning to electric vehicles.”
“I said then that the demand for battery packs will exceed available capacity. Now that is becoming true.”
Most of the world’s battery cells have been coming from Asia, but that’s changing slowly. Some of the cells going into the packs ATS assembles are also going to be made in Ohio. The Ultium Cells Gigafactory in Lordstown, a joint venture with LG, is scheduled to open in August. GM once employed 9000 at its Lordstown assembly plant, and the battery plant will only have 1200 workers, but the new jobs are welcome. Production is poised to start this year. GM is building a second battery factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and a third will be built in Lansing, Michigan. There’s an anticipated fourth plant, too.
Richard Phillips, vice president for global manufacturing engineering at General Motors, said in Columbus that GM will be spending $35 billion on EVs and autonomous vehicles by 2025, “and it’s exciting to see ATS take the initiative here. By the end of 2025, GM will have the capacity to produce one million EVs in North America, and another million in China, all on our proprietary Ultium platform. It’s critical that we make our own battery cells, and that’s what we will be doing in Lordstown. We’re counting on ATS to keep our factories running with packs produced with quality and speed.”