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Air CargoAmerican ShipperNewsSupply ChainsTop Stories

Lithium battery maker airlifts assembly line to leapfrog port congestion

Enovix employs enormous Soviet-era military jet to meet factory deadline

In early August, Enovix Corp. completed the installation of specialized equipment for a sophisticated production line in Fremont, California, and is gearing up to begin commercial production of batteries for mobile electronic devices in early 2022.

The ocean congestion gripping U.S. West Coast ports this year could have derailed those efforts.

For a manufacturer of advanced lithium ion batteries building its first factory on a tight schedule, the prospect of waiting weeks for an automated assembly line from Asia was not an option. 

So Enovix and its logistics partner, TransPak, quickly tactically pivoted to airfreight. And just any widebody cargo plane, such as a Boeing 777 or 747, wouldn’t do. The call went to Ukrainian-based Antonov Airlines for its An-124, a super-jumbo jet originally designed to carry tanks for the Russian military and now the largest cargo jet in regular commercial use. 

“We were faced with a choice: Accept a three-month delay and delay the startup of our factory when our customers have products they are counting on this component for, or try to find some creative way around the backlog,” Chief Operating Officer Cameron Dales said in an interview.

The automated assembly line consists of more than 25 robotic pieces of machinery that work in unison. The total shipment weighed 55 tons. After undergoing extensive testing at factories in Asia, the equipment was partially disassembled and carefully packed into 60 shipping crates before being loaded on the An-124, which delivered it to San Francisco International Airport on a Sunday in late April. With a length of nearly 230 feet, two internal cranes and front-and-rear ramps, the super freighter is well suited for oversized cargo.

Most of the units arrived on flatbed trucks at the Fremont facility within hours of landing. One piece was so large it required an escort by the California Highway Patrol the next day.

The air charter operation, including logistics arrangements, represented “a massive shortcut” for setting up the factory, said Dales. “It certainly involved premium pricing relative to other modes of transportation, but from an ROI perspective it was kind of a no-brainer for us. The time was just so valuable.”

Enovix is a case study in how companies are going above and beyond traditional logistics tactics to keep their businesses running with supply chains snarled for more than a year. And the situation today is even worse than it was five months ago.

The ocean transportation system has never been as clogged for a prolonged period as it is now, with about 65 container vessels in the Pacific waiting to enter the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Cargo is piling up faster in terminals than trucks and trains can move it out. COVID is wreaking havoc with port productivity in Asia too, and vessels are so off schedule that their on-time arrival rate is down to 25%.

In the spring, there were less than half as many cargo ships queued off the coast of Southern California as there are now. And the problems extend far beyond overcrowding. Shippers are struggling to find available containers in Asia and it can take a week or two to secure a confirmed booking. For retailers, the order-to-cash cycle has doubled to four months.

Retail club Costco last week said it has hired a company to operate dedicated cargo vessels on its behalf because of unreliable transport performance by major ocean carriers. The Home Depot and Walmart have also taken this extraordinary step.

The Enovix factory will be the first facility in the world capable of volume production of advanced lithium-ion batteries with a special 3D architecture called a silicone anode that offers up to 110% improvement in energy density compared to standard batteries in mobile applications. Energy density is the amount of storage that can be packed in form factor. The more dense the battery the longer a cellphone can run or the more features a manufacturer can include. In a car, the more energy dense the power source, the fewer battery cells are needed, which lowers  cost and reduces mass.

At full buildout, the factory is expected to produce 45 million batteries per year.

Why build in the U.S. when nearly all lithium ion batteries are produced in Asia? Dales said Enovix has a number of domestic suppliers, particularly for some of its more customized equipment, and believes that co-location of research and manufacturing is critical in high-tech industries.

“The next-generation batteries require a tight feedback loop between the production line and the R&D people,” he said. 

A local fabrication plant also advances the U.S. government’s goal of building an electric battery industry in the U.S. as the nation moves towards an electric vehicle future. Lawmakers and the Biden administration are keen to support domestic production of critical products such as electric vehicle batteries and semiconductors, arguing that reliance on overseas sources threatens economic and national security.

When production of technologies invented in the U.S. was outsourced to Asia, the innovation capability of many companies was eventually lost because the R&D eventually migrated to the center of manufacturing, according to manufacturing experts.

Enovix, financed by semiconductor makers Cyprus, Intel and Qualcomm, is racing against competitors to get new-generation battery technology to market. The Fremont facility recently produced its first battery cell. Customers plan to use the batteries in applications such as smart watches to mobile communication handsets to laptops. 

The company has also released a new battery cell design for augmented reality glasses and last month signed a purchase agreement with an unnamed California technology company valued at up to $20 million. The customer will pay a $3.5 million reservation fee for manufacturing capacity within the next year, with commercial production scheduled to begin in 2025.

With up to double the energy capacity of batteries currently on the market, Enovix’s lithium-ion batteries can power computationally intensive features like AR while still offering the battery life and small size that consumers desire, according to the company.

Dales said Enovix is exploring where to locate a second factory. The future factory, targeted to open in 2023, will be about six times larger than the Fremont site. Enovix will buy the second plant from an existing battery maker and retrofit it, CEO and co-founder Harrold Rust said in a July video presentation. 

Meanwhile, the tech company is working to migrate its technology to a form factor that can be used in electric vehicles. And it recently won a contract from the U.S. Army to demonstrate its technology for powering night-vision goggles and other gear carried by soldiers in the field.

In July, Enovix combined with special purpose acquisition company Rodgers Silicon Valley Acquisition Corp. in a reverse merger. The listing (NASDAQ: ENVX) resulted in gross cash proceeds of $405 million, which the company said will help fund construction of its first two production facilities while continuing to develop cells for EVs.

 Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch, Air Cargo Editor

Eric is the Air Cargo Market Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at ekulisch@freightwaves.com

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