The battery industry insiders: Q&A with the Bitrode Corporation

In many ways, the Bitrode Corporation has the ultimate inside scoop on the battery industry. Along with its parent company, Sovema, and sister division, Solith, the group has its hands all over battery development, manufacturing and testing. The companies supply equipment and support to many of the biggest names in automotive-grade battery manufacturing.

Acquired by Sovema in 2008, Bitrode’s main area of expertise is battery formation and testing equipment for both production and development laboratories. Sovema and Solith cover the battery manufacturing process for lead-acid and Li-ion batteries, respectively. Bitrode’s chargers and testers join in the process at the first charging event, and also cover validation and end-of-line testing. The company is noted for having a premier high-speed, end-of-line tester that large volume production facilities need.

The battery industry in the US has been on quite a roller coaster ride for the past few years. After the stimulus funding in 2009, cell makers and material suppliers around the country ramped up production capacity with optimistic visions of a new EV market. However, the market didn’t grow quite as fast as everyone had hoped.

Charged recently caught up with the folks at Bitrode to get their thoughts on the current state of the industry.

 

Charged: Some have argued that the stimulus funding in 2009 could be viewed as a challenge, rather than a blessing for the battery industry, and that organic growth leads to a healthier, more stabilized marketplace. Do you think that’s fair to say?

 

David Rice, Vice President and General Manager at Bitrode Corporation: If you look back at where we were and what the stimulus money did, you could probably make a case both ways. I tend to be more of an optimist. 

On the EV adoption side, I think the timing wasn’t great, in that the market was not yet ready with the infrastructure needed and customer education needed, and so the forecasted demand given by industry pundits early on was grossly overstated for the near term. The results show that the market didn’t get the adoption early on. But, now, we’re already seeing the signs of a market in transition to a more realistic organic growth phase, because not only are we starting to see the prices of EVs come down, but the fear of the unknown is being calmed for the consumers as the reliability and performance of the EVs are being proven again and again.

From the battery industry standpoint, human nature is that everyone hoped we were on that transition point of the hockey stick curve. We weren’t quite there yet. But if you look at the advancement of technology and renewable energy utilization that has happened in the last few years, it’s phenomenal. 

I think that in terms of EVs, after a slow start, we’re finally seeing real traction now and starting to see a market with true momentum and leverage. So, it’s going to go. People are excited about plug-in vehicles, and there are a lot of different startups that are coming into the industry. The big questions are: How quickly is the growth going to go? And, How exactly is the overall market going to play out?  

 

John Grimm, Director of Sales & Marketing at Bitrode Corporation: I agree. How effectively or efficiently was that money spent? I think that’s an issue we could circle back to with respect to creating challenges for the industry. In other words, was the right money spent at the right time by the right companies? Sure, you could make an argument that there is some percentage that was not. 

 

Charged: So, the roller coaster effect of the stimulus funding is starting to level out?

 

David Rice: I recently completed my first year as General Manager at Bitrode. Last year, when I came on board, it was a time when the industry was going through the loss of the stimulus. Everyone was reorganizing, and now we’re seeing consolidation of markets. A validation of early theories, projections and ideas has led to a normal business cycle of any new product or market…and in this case it’s lots of products and a brand new market. 

The stimulus led to this huge mountain of opportunity and work, and that was something that we benefitted from greatly. Today, the exciting part for us is that Bitrode is in a good position, poised well to support the market, with our on-time shipments averaging over 90 percent. We are well known for our excellent field service and support, which is a fundamental requirement of both labs and formation customers.

I’m excited to see a lot of things coming back to the states. We’re right out of St. Louis, born and bred and made in the USA, which is a great thing for our country. 

 

Charged: So, do you see the US as the big growth market?

 

John Grimm: Yes, we certainly do, but Bitrode is very much a global company, and we’re seeing growth opportunities throughout all regions of the world. In fact, we are making continuous improvements and additions to our global sales and service channels to support this growth. When I joined Bitrode recently, I was amazed at our installed base of equipment across the globe. Our reach and market position is extraordinary.

 

Mike Kuznetsov, Engineering Manager at Bitrode Corporation: I’ve been with Bitrode for 18 years, and often joke that the only continent we don’t have products in is the one populated with penguins, Antarctica. We’re on every other continent, including Australia and Africa.

 

David Rice: And product quality is still fantastic. We have units that are decades old that we still service and maintain. 

 

Charged: As the industry evolves, are your customers’ needs and requests growing more sophisticated in terms of feature sets?

 

David Rice: Yes. A few years ago we wouldn’t have been involved with racing teams. Now we have the pleasure of working with customers who are engaged with the Formula E Championship that are pushing us to newer and higher levels. That’s a niche market, but it’s exciting to support the customers that push our equipment to its limit, which makes us push ourselves to provide equipment that can meet the most demanding needs of our customers. 

Everyone is also trying to learn more and gain a better understanding of new chemistries. They’re trying to optimize the quality of charge capacity, and refine their processes so that the actual finished product is optimized. They’re achieving levels now that they couldn’t do several years ago. That’s what cutting edge development is all about, and that’s the fun part. It’s going to give us, as consumers, better energy density and more miles per charge. 

 

Mike Kuznetsov: A good example of new things we can do is the size of the drive cycles that our customers are now using for testing. The data is typically collected from someone who drives a real vehicle on the road. They collect it, then they convert the data for use with our testing equipment. This way they can have different driving scenarios for use in battery pack testing. 

Each drive cycle program consists of a sequence of steps that tell the battery to charge at some current for a certain amount of time, then discharge at a different current for a period of time, and so on. To simulate real life, you need several thousand steps, or even tens of thousands of steps. So, we added the capability to support essentially an unlimited number of steps in the drive cycle to our architecture. With the system we originally developed, it was limited to several thousand steps, which is still pretty significant, but limited. And over the years the requirements grew. 

One of our customers called me directly and asked for this feature, so Bitrode added it to our systems. At the time we were very specific to this particular customer’s need, and it’s in our culture to modify our equipment to meet the needs of our customers. 

 

Charged: Is that your secret for success, to quickly adapt to customers’ needs?

 

Mike Kuznetsov: When it comes to exotic demands, Bitrode is the champion. We have built our reputation over five decades that we can and will customize our equipment or develop new equipment to do something that nobody else would even consider. Our partnership with Solith and Sovema allows us to do even more than what we used to be able to do in the past. Customization is our specialty. 

We have standard product platforms that we developed, but we can enhance or modify each product based on our customer’s specific application criteria. We are flexible and open to meet new and changing needs. That sets us apart. Our existing customers know this, and our new customers are delighted to find they have direct access to our product engineers, technicians, tech support and service, who are personally engaged in their concerns. 

Every project that comes to us has customer-required enhancements that we are willing and able to support. Part of our culture has always been to be very customer-focused.

 

David Rice: The nice thing about a Bitrode product is that our customers don’t have to buy a standardized product and force a fit to make it work. They can start from our base product and then get what they want. That’s a significant difference with the new and emerging chemistries and applications in this vibrant market.

 

Charged: Because your systems are highly customized, and you adapt to the needs of each customer, does that make it more difficult to market? In other words, is it a challenge to explain your capabilities in a brochure?

 

David Rice: The best way for us to market is to say, “Tell us what you need!”  Because in almost every single case, the answer is, “Yes, we can!”

 

Mike Kuznetsov: Every time there is a charge that goes into the battery or out of the battery, we cover that segment. We have specialized in batteries and their chemistries for decades – we specialize in making equipment for those that build new batteries, cells or modules and need equipment capable of testing at new limits never before seen. 

 

David Rice: For example, for our high-volume battery producers, to my knowledge we have the fastest throughput end-of-line testers available today.

 

Mike Kuznetsov: To answer your question, yes it is a challenge to communicate all of our capabilities. We even have customers that have been using our equipment and our architecture, but find that they may be unaware of all of the new features our equipment supports, like the unlimited number of steps in the drive cycle that I mentioned previously.

Another great new feature is monitoring the test process on the Web. Remote monitoring was part of our system from the very beginning, but it was limited to the local area network computers. Now we have web-based monitoring. You can see what each circuit is doing at any given moment. This is an example of a function that customers who purchased our systems five years ago may not be aware of, because they didn’t need it at that time. Yet, it was already onboard. It’s part of what we do to stay ahead of the market by anticipating our customers’ needs before they truly need it.

Another customer asked us to open our interface. We did what is now a popular buzzword called hardware-in-the-loop, or HIL – which the more I hear, the more meanings it apparently has in the public’s view. Everyone interprets it differently; it’s evolving. What it boils down to is that there is peripheral equipment, or a battery itself, that needs to communicate with our system. 

Our system is engineered by design to have three ways to accommodate external communications. Customers can keep our system as is with all the benefits of our VisuaLCN software that it comes with, plug in the system and have a control in parallel with what we provide on the embedded control level. They can also do the same thing plugging in on the PC level, if it makes more sense from their architecture standpoint. And the third approach is to take our server out of the picture completely, and we provide protocol to control our system by any third-party software. So it’s versatile, which is what our customers have asked for depending on their individual lab systems in place. We try to accommodate every architecture on the market for every possible customer scenario. Some may be set up already using a different lab protocol – and they may not want to train technicians to work with ours – so they can drop it straight in and control our equipment. 

The communication disconnect in this case comes from this HIL buzzword. If someone looks at our brochures, “HIL” may not be there, but there is a different wording that translates into HIL if you know how to read it. That’s why we prefer to simply say, “Yes, we can.”

 

This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 12 – FEB 2014