Ford Spending $185 Million on New Battery R&D Center

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Image: Ford Motor Co.

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On Tuesday, Ford Motor Co. said it would be putting $185 million toward the construction of a research and development site focused on electric vehicle battery development in southeast Michigan. The facility will be called Ford Ion Park and employ roughly 150 full-time employees that will be focusing on small-scale projects that it hopes might lead to technological breakthroughs offering it a competitive advantage.

While the facility was said to also be capable of manufacturing cells, Ford made it clear during the teleconference that it won’t be operating as a battery plant. Any packs assembled at the R&D center are likely to exist exclusively for evaluation, with the luckiest batteries being installed into concept or test 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,” stated 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.”

But as reporters began to probe the automaker on whether or not that means it will eventually pivot toward manufacturing its own batteries, Ford was less committal — stating that it preferred to maintain its existing partnerships with battery suppliers and would continue working with outside entities in the future.

Considering the timing of this announcement, it was clear that this was an issue on many people’s minds. While the semiconductor shortage has been forcing most manufacturers to stall production this year, Blue Oval was one of the automakers suffering the worst. Combine that with the problems SK Innovation (Ford’s main battery supplier) has been having of late and it starts to seem like management started developing doubts about just-in-time supply chains. But Ford Ion Park doesn’t really seem to be up to the task of converting the company into becoming self-reliant on the battery front.

CEO Jim Farley has suggested it’s all about incremental growth. After all, it wasn’t more than a few months ago when his predecessor (former CEO Jim Hackett) said that there wasn’t any real advantage to vertically integrate battery production. But he’s also no longer with the company and it’s easy to speculate as to why.

Farley spent the last month telling the press that Ford has basically been shopping around to see the lay of the land up until now. But this is the year the real work allegedly begins by way of a $22-billion investment to modernize its facilities and products. Though the money will be funneled in through 2025 and represents an increase from the original $11 billion it planned on spending already.

Semiconductors came up during the conference call about Ford Ion Park, with Thai-Tang echoing statements made by Farley about how this has been a learning experience on how best to manage supply chains. He said the solution is to make Ford a more flexible automaker and work more closely with suppliers while it remains on the lookout for technological breakthroughs — something the new R&D center could help with.

The 200,000-square-foot facility is supposed to open before the start of 2023 and work closely with the Battery Benchmarking and Test Laboratory located in nearby Allen Park (go Jaguars).

[Image: Ford Motor Co.]

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