Ford Ion Park: The Company Is Getting Very Serious About Battery R&D

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Ford announced today that it is investing big money in a new battery research and development center called Ion Park. Its goal? To improve battery cells, pilot better manufacturing techniques, and work toward vertical integration of batteries for the company’s future electric vehicles.

“We’re already scaling production of all-electric vehicles around the world as more customers experience and crave the fun-to-drive benefits of electric vehicles with zero emissions,” said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s chief product platform and operations officer. “Investing in more battery R&D ultimately will help us speed the process to deliver more, even better, lower cost EVs for customers over time.”

To do this, Ford is building a 200,000 square foot “learning lab” where they’ll test potential battery technologies. Ford will be testing different electrode, cell, and array designs, and it will also do pilot work to see how manufacturable a design is. Ultimately, the company wants to be ready to spring the right designs into production when it is ready to vertically integrate battery manufacturing.

Anand Sankaran will lead the Ford Ion Park team. He’s been with the company for 30 years, and has decades of battery and electrification expertise. He has been deeply involved in Ford’s electrification and full EV efforts, from the first Escape Hybrid to the Mach-E. Sankaran also holds 32 US patents in automotive power electronics and hybrid vehicle technologies and is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

In its press release, Ford said it plans to tailor battery types to different vehicles, based on how they’ll be used. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, the company will develop different chemistries that are optimized for different tasks. That means creating distinct batteries and technologies to deliver meaningful towing and off-road capability for truck customers as well as stop-and-go driving efficiency for fleet operators in cities worldwide.

Ion Park will be opening up next to another battery facility that opened late last year: the Battery Benchmarking and Test Laboratory. The state-of-the-art lab houses battery cell and pack test rooms, test benches and benchmarking facilities to support battery cell design validation, controls calibration, pack development and pilot battery pack projects with different chemistries. The lab team can replicate the performance of full-scale production batteries under extreme weather and customer use cases, speeding implementation in future vehicles.

“We are creating new tools and solutions we need for a carbon-free, affordable and better future,” Thai-Tang said. “We are modernizing Ford’s battery development and manufacturing capabilities so we can better control costs and production variables in-house and scale production around the world with speed and quality.”

While companies like Tesla and GM have gained a lot of reputation for battery knowledge in recent years, Ford does have a long history with EVs and batteries. This goes back to the last time EVs were popular, around 1900. Henry Ford worked with Thomas Edison to try to improve the technology, but it ultimately didn’t progress fast enough to beat the onslaught of gas-powered vehicles with electric starters (which made driving them much easier).

Ford has secured more than 2,500 US patents in electrification technologies, with another 4,300 patents pending.

The lull in intense EV activity ended for Ford in 2004 with the Escape Hybrid. Since then, Ford has sold over a million electrified vehicles and has gone through four generations of batteries. By the end of the year, it plans on building EVs and related components at over 15 powertrain and vehicle assembly plants around the world.

Some Big Takeaways

One big thing from this is that Ford plans on vertically integrating its battery production in the future. In plain English, it plans to eventually build its own batteries in-house instead of just buying them from other companies. In some ways, this validates the Tesla approach, which has been to work on both in-house production and maximizing what they can get from suppliers at the same time. The downside? It is pretty behind in this effort.

Buying from suppliers has left Ford vulnerable in recent times, especially with its supply for the upcoming electric F-150. Seeing that it built another big facility last year for battery research shows us that the company has been working on vertically integrating for a while, but when you find yourself not able to get batteries like you’d planned for, it has to bring up the urgency level. Ford can keep buying from SK for the next few years, but it definitely needs more supply.

Its push to tailor batteries to different vehicles is also an interesting idea. Different vehicles are going to put very different demands on batteries. A semi-truck or even a larger pickup pulling a large load will put heavier strains over hours and probably with repeated DCFC sessions. An economical commuter that mostly operates in the city will deal with brief spurts of high demand, followed by regen, and then sit. A performance vehicle will do what the city car does, but with even higher demand for acceleration.

We know already that different chemistries are better for different jobs, especially when it comes to stationary storage. That different chemistries could be better for different automotive tasks does make sense, but we will have to see how that pans out for Ford before deciding if it was a good approach.

It’s also important to note that Ford wants to gain a better reputation for battery technology. No company wants to be known for being a follower instead of a leader in an important space, and EVs are apparently now a very important space for Ford. Instead of quietly opening up the research facilities and waiting to spring the new technology out to wow and shock people, it is announcing moves ahead of time so people will know that the company is taking batteries (and by extension, EVs) seriously.

While I know some EV enthusiasts will mock Ford for this, keep in mind that it is making a big shift right now. It’s good that Ford finds its EV reputation to be an important aspect of the company’s overall image. It’s great to see this become a priority for Ford, and I hope we see it bear some real fruit in the next few years.

Featured image provided by Ford.

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