For its high-end batteries, Saft buys its raw materials throughout the world. While the final assembly of the batteries is increasingly carried out in the countries where they are sold, the most sensitive manufacturing stage still takes place in France.
INDUSTRY - Since the beginning of the year, the Indian employees of the Saft factory in Bangalore have been learning to handle a new product: large batteries to be used in trains, trams or metros, to open doors for example, in the event of a power outage. The French manufacturer has decided to add this model to the batteries already produced on site for planes and energy storage, in order to tap the growth of this vast market of 1.3 billion people.
"We are currently in the process of hiring an Indian project manager and an Indian designer to show our batteries to future customers and customize the batteries with them on site, since practically every model is unique", explains Philippe Tigier, Project Manager at the Bordeaux factory. He supervises the upscaling of this distant site, inaugurated in 2013 with the local partner Amco.
In the same way as dresses are made to measure, this company, which used to make fixed and traction batteries, now tailor-makes high-tech high-power batteries. The Group, which will be celebrating its one hundredth anniversary next year, is even included in the Guinness World Records for having made “the world's most powerful battery”, installed in Alaska. Fifty years ago, Saft equipped the Concorde prototypes, and thirty years ago, La Poste's first electric cars. Today, its batteries are used in military vehicles, planes and on oil platforms. They are also used in special projects, such as the Philae robot, which woke up at the end of its ten-year journey on board the Rosetta space probe, thanks to Saft's energy.
This DNA – which is akin to that of haute couture – is something that Saft CEO Ghislain Lescuyer cherishes. While the Group does not produce as much as giants like LG, Panasonic and Samsung (see opposite), its profit margins are higher. This model caught the eye of Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total, and convinced him to acquire Saft a year ago in order to conquer the renewable energy storage market. For his first visit, the oil company boss went to Bordeaux, where Saft’s research activities, as well as its most strategic industrial activities, are based. "The electrochemical heart is the most complex part of the battery and represents up to 40% of its value", states Philippe Tigier. Saft has fourteen factories in nine different countries, including three in France and four in the United States. They are specialized and are not all equally dependent on the flagship factory in Bordeaux. Operations Director Jean-Baptiste Pernot is tasked with managing this network in the best possible way. "The number of requests – whether formal or otherwise – from our customers and governments to localize production in their home countries has increased sharply over the past decade", he says. Such requests, which sometimes disregard WTO rules, are often submitted to train or aircraft manufacturers, who pass them on to their suppliers. In the same way as has been seen in the United States for a long time, India with its "Make in India" campaign and, most significantly, China, can now wield their influence with the weight of their immense needs and more mature ecosystems. "Over the past fifteen years, our Chinese customers have become increasingly demanding and are asking for local supply", adds Jean- Baptiste Pernot.
Once the decision has been taken, the installation of a production line takes several months. "This is nothing compared to building a local supplier network, which can take several years", points out the Operations Director. Indeed, for train, metro and tramway batteries, Saft buys a large part of its supplies locally, around Bordeaux, Zhuhai and Bangalore. That’s notably the case for the steel or stainless steel containers that hold the battery heart, produced in Bordeaux. "Make no mistake, response time is a much more important factor than cost", stresses Jean-Baptiste Pernot. For a European manufacturer, it is not always cost-effective to offshore part of its production to Asia rather than concentrate its volumes in Europe. "Our customers demand batteries that are more efficient and less costly, but they also want them to be delivered quickly and be modifiable almost up until the last minute", points out Christophe Bénard, formerly based in Bordeaux and now a railway battery specialist in the Chinese factory in Zhuhai. The fact is it takes a month and a half for a ship to transport containers between France and China. In that country, Saft's customers include the Chinese company CRRC, the world's biggest train manufacturer, which is twice as big as the train divisions of Bombardier, Siemens and Alstom (a long-standing customer) combined.
In total, Saft has more than 6,000 suppliers worldwide, including 300 regular suppliers. "We want to develop a more global supplier base, with closer, long-term relations in order to get better deals. Furthermore, with our customers, we want to increase co-creation, like the automotive and aeronautic industries", explains Jean-Baptiste Pernot. For its raw materials, the group thus enters into master contracts, with commitments on volumes, but prices that can be revised according to market fluctuations. Large mining groups (such as Vale and BHP Billiton) extract nickel – the main commodity used in Saft's railway batteries – in Australia, South Africa, Brazil and Canada. The presence of nickel plays a major role in the globalization of the production of railway batteries. However, the content of the mixes is a closely-guarded secret at the Bordeaux site. There, nickel is plated onto thin bands of steel foil, imported from China. This makes up the positive and negatives plates that form the heart of the batteries, which will travel by train, metro or tram across the four corners of the world.
NICKEL STILL COMING FROM NEW CALEDONIA
"White copper" – used in coins and numerous industrial alloys – is a strategic metal as it is relatively rare, even though it is found in the Earth's core. A significant portion of the world's reserves is concentrated in the subsoil of New Caledonia. Nickel is an essential component of Saft's train, metro and tramway batteries.
CONTAINERS PRODUCED NEAR CUSTOMER SITES
The containers add the final touch to the batteries. They are made-to-measure near the factory where the batteries are assembled, as they are too large to be transported at low cost. They contain the positive and negative plates and the cables to connect the battery to the train. Containers are increasingly equipped with sensors for remote monitoring.
FOIL FROM CHINA
The foil consists of a thin band of perforated steel, notably coated with nickel, then surrounded with a liquid (the electrolyte) and components to form the heart of the train batteries. As this foil is no longer available from European manufacturers, it comes from China, the world's biggest producer. And much of it goes back there once transformed.
Sweden and Czech Republic (Component)
Canada (raw materials)
China (steel rolls)
Brazil (raw materials)
South Africa (raw materials)
Australia (raw materials)
The battery, an invention that is 200 years old and still developing Italian physicist Alessandro Volta could not have imagined that his battery made of silver and zinc discs in 1800 would be so successful. While opinions differ on the growth rate of the battery market, which has already doubled over the past five years, everyone is agreed that it will be significant. According to oil company Total, which acquired Saft a year ago, the market will grow from $80 billion to $140 billion over the next ten years. Numerous industrial players, such as Panasonic, Samsung and LG, produce a large variety of models used in numerous everyday objects (watches, phones, drills, scooters, etc.). At present, the two most coveted categories are those of electric vehicles and renewable energy storage.
ANNELOT HUIJGENArticle in Le Figaro