Building Disruptive Processes: A Story About Batteries

A great article came out from Quartz this week on the future of manufacturing in the United States that reinforces a lot of my beliefs around the development of manufacturing in the next few years. Quartz’s story revolves around how an MIT team, lead by MIT materials sciences professor, Yet-Ming Chiang, stumbled upon an invention that is set to revolutionize battery production and usage in the United states. The new invention from 24-m would potentially enable the team to make a new cell battery every two to ten seconds to power businesses, neighborhoods and utilities. By 2020 the new production method would enable lithium-ion batteries to be produced at 30% less cost than they are currently.

Industry-disrupting stuff to say the least. Especially since battery development has become a major R&D focus for leading technology companies and the U.S. government in the last decade.

Much of 24-m’s success comes from the painstaking process of re-envisioning the production process in battery manufacturing. Even it means making battery cells by hand:

“… Duduta stuck his arms into the black rubber gloves of an airless research box—known as a glove box—and began to hand-make cells. That meant mixing up the goop, or slurry, that comprises the two electrodes—the anode and cathode—and slapping them onto a thin film, separated by another plastic film.”

Although this seems inefficient (“remaking the wheel”), the team actually found new efficiencies in starting from scratch, successfully creating an automobile sized battery cell in about six minutes (incredibly fast compared to current manufacturing methods.) They also re-envisioned the design of the battery cell itself, which loses 35% of it’s interior space to material that doesn’t actually produce more electricity.  Reducing the filler and changing up the science of the battery resulted in a new manufacturing process that has the potential to change how much Americans rely on on fossil fuels in the future.

24-m Technology Overview:

From 24m Website: http://24-m.com/technology/

To me, the concept of rethinking how to manufacture and design has larger implications outside of batteries. Inefficiency, borne out of a tradition of “building on what’s been already built” can be a major limiting factor for future development in any industry. I see this all the time in my current line of work in enterprise technology. Companies are held back by the technology investments they made decades ago, hesitant to scope out new solutions despite a tangible benefit in cost, scalability, and design simply because it requires the organization to fundamentally change its habits. From my perspective, too many companies cling to the processes of the past out of wanting to simplify their consideration set which ends up having a perverse effect on innovation. The perceived cost of transformation is so high, many companies choose to stay with the status quo, adding only minor adjustments that conveniently ignore many underlying problems.

For manufacturing, there is major opportunity to rethink how products and businesses are designed, particularly as the Internet of Things forces manufacturers to integrate information/data gathering devices with manufacturing processes that promote efficiency, reduce waste, and increase productivity. One major application of this that I’ve written about is in construction and public safety but the concept could be generally applied to any industry requiring significant manufacturing investments like food packaging, consumer electronics, and automobiles.

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