At Saft’s innovation incubators, an open mind is the most important qualification
Diverse teams apply new technologies to real-world problems at hubs in Bordeaux, France and Cockeysville, US
If you’ve ever observed a link between potato chip packaging and battery chemistry, you may be just the kind of scientist Saft is looking for.
“In one electrochemistry project, we examined how the laminate on the packaging keeps out all traces of moisture, and how we could incorporate it into our own processes,” says Carine Steinway, who leads Saft’s innovation team in Cockeysville, Maryland. The site focuses on specialized batteries for the space and defense industries, but scientists, engineers and technicians also work on projects in an innovation “incubator”, drawing on the latest thinking from a wide range of industries. The packaging analysis came about because batteries, like chips, need to be protected from humidity.
“With the incubator, we’re trying to branch out and move away from the accepted way of doing things,” adds Steinway, who oversees around 15 to 20 scientists working on incubator projects alongside their day jobs. She says their ability to solve problems creatively is greatly enhanced by the fact that the team is very diverse, in age, nationality and qualifications.
The people involved range from recent graduates in their twenties to very experienced scientists in their sixties, from the US, France, South Korea, China, Japan and Ukraine. Reflecting the range of Saft’s expertise, chemists, mechanical and electrical engineers and commercial teams work together to solve customer problems.
In 2016, Saft set up two technology incubators to accelerate a vital stage of its research and development (R&D) – the point when a technology emerges from the research lab, in search of a real-world application. At the two incubators, in Cockeysville and Bordeaux, teams develop working prototypes and subject them to the conditions that impact battery performance in the field, including temperature changes, humidity and vibrations.
“Working collaboratively with sales teams ensures scientific and engineering resources are applied to the needs of the business, while a willingness to learn from colleagues, and to bring in the best thinking from all industries, creates a culture where experimentation is encouraged but also focused”, says Thomas Peuchant, battery systems team leader at the Bordeaux incubator.
“We hire people with a very open-minded spirit who want to make prototypes even when we don’t yet know exactly how we will use the idea in a battery,” he says. “They have a wish to learn, and we have all the competency within Saft to teach them.”
Peuchant himself began his career as an R&D engineer in the car industry, after graduating from the French Institute of Petroleum’s engineering school. He worked on the battery management system for Renault’s first electric car before joining Saft in 2013.
Open-mindedness applies as much to how things are done as to new products or technologiesCarine Steinway Leader of Saft's Innovation Team in Cockeysville, Maryland
Learning from younger scientists and engineers is becoming increasingly important as software and data collection and analysis become a bigger part of Saft’s battery installations. Smart power systems can now be monitored remotely and in real-time, communicating information about the health of the battery to the owner and even anticipating problems before they happen.
“Since our remote monitoring system became operational, we have taken a step forward into the world of Artificial Intelligence and we need to switch to new skills,” says Peuchant. “We need to hire data scientists to extract hidden information from the battery data, to better understand how battery aging happens and increase the accuracy of our models.”
Customers keep track of their connected batteries and energy storage systems (ESS) via a secure website, which regularly updates key metrics from the battery.
“We had to learn how to make a secure server and a secure website - this is a brand-new activity for us, and that’s where we can learn from newly-qualified graduates,” adds Peuchant.
“Open-mindedness applies as much to how things are done as to new products or technologies”, says Steinway. Recently, younger team members in Cockeysville worked on a prototype to use carbon fiber rather than aluminum plate for the compression fixture in a lithium-ion battery, and produced the module using 3D printing.
“It was interesting to see the discussion with senior colleagues who have been used to working with aluminum and how the team developed a prototype that answered concerns about doing it in a different way,” she explains.
The result was a success – the carbon fiber fixture was lighter and so reduced the weight of the whole module system, and unlike using metal, it did not need to be insulated to prevent shorts. That saved labor and time.
“The example is still being qualified, but the long-term aim is to incorporate it into our commercial products, especially for applications with weight restrictions,” says Steinway. “We have also gained 3D printing experience and contacts with 3D printing suppliers.”
As technological disruption accelerates, and more and more industries look to battery technology to support their transition from fossil fuels to renewables, keeping an open mind is enabling Saft’s scientists, engineers and commercial teams to keep pace with the speed of changes impacting customers and their industries.