SME Speaks: Manufacturing Has a Role
By Manish Mehta, PhD
Director of Collaborative Projects
National Center for Manufacturing Sciences
Ann Arbor, MI
Forward-looking manufacturers who get involved with alternative energy production have the opportunity to innovate in both technology and business, and reward themselves handsomely with profit.Within the scope of alternative energies, hydrogen fuel cell technology represents a major opportunity for suppliers and is considered the "holy grail" of advanced power for many energy demands and applications. Its uses range from supplying personal and portable power--powering cell phones, laptops, and other devices intended for consumer usage--to industrial and institutional power, military uses, and eventually to large-scale transportation. Currently, its use is not regulated, but in the United States, a federal decision to require fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen fueling stations is expected by 2015. Manufacturers who have invested early in intellectual capital, product and process research, and development stand to benefit.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that produces electricity from a combined chemical reaction and electrical charge transport that occurs within the fuel cell. This is similar to the way a battery produces electricity but, in this case, the cell requires fuel, usually hydrogen, as in the case of proton exchange membrane fuel cells. When hydrogen is supplied by a carrier fuel, a chemical reaction between the hydrogen and oxygen from the air produces electricity, water, and minimal heat. The reaction occurs at relatively low temperatures, with no emission of greenhouse gases. The resulting clean electrical power is proportional to the rate of fuel flowing into the fuel cell, and is only limited by the physical size of the fuel cell itself.
The process sounds simple, but manufacturing the fuel cell is not. Typically, cost and volume scalability challenges have hindered the hydrogen fuel cell's production and wide-scale commercial usage. These very challenges provide incredible opportunities for the "manufuture." Manufacturers hold the critical knowledge and skills needed to develop essential hydrogen generation and fuel cell technologies that are scalable and supported by a capable supply base.
If you are up to the task, the benefits can be yours.
The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) recently convened a cross-industry workshop with fuel cell researchers, end-users, and supply chain representatives to define manufacturing technology development and cost-reduction opportunities. The needs of the near-term growth markets for proton exchange membrane and solid oxide fuel cells--both powered by hydrogen--were ranked high and ripe for collaborations that can solve many key problems related to the manufacturing of hydrogen storage systems and fuel cell components.
Issues related to the manufacture of hydrogen storage structures, for instance, include the need for better manufacturing and assembly processes, joining technologies, and the manufacturing of fittings, valves, tubing, and other plumbing. Better sealing technologies will make a difference when it comes to the manufacture of fuel cell components and stacks. Improved coating processes and automated manufacturing and assembly technologies will help the manufacturers of fuel cells become more efficient in their utilization of expensive catalyst materials. And there are more issues manufacturers can solve in this industry, including discrete-parts manufacturing and assembly, parts reduction, water/heat management components, and nondestructive testing and evaluation methods.
The best near-term manufacturing opportunities for proton exchange membrane fuel cell component suppliers are in early fuel-cell power applications such as recreational and utility vehicles, portable devices, and products like radio frequency ID readers, residential power generators, and industrial equipment. These markets are expected to grow even faster than the market for fuel cells in the highly cost-competitive consumer electronics (e.g., laptops and cell phones) market. In the latter, the incumbent lithium-ion battery will be hard to displace profitably due to its maturity and proven reliability. Once end-user and market confidence build up, the third potential fuel-cell market will be in auxiliary power, and eventually more high-volume automotive propulsion applications of fuel cells.
For the savvy supplier, design and manufacturing opportunities in the creation of proton exchange membrane fuel cell components include:
- Bipolar plates: Made in highly automated fashion from metal, graphite or composites, it is projected that at least a million bipolar plates will be needed daily for fuel-cell assembly by 2020 in North America alone.
- Catalyst-coated membranes and conformally shaped anodes and cathodes: The manufacture of proton exchange member stacks will also require the production of millions of these per day.
- Balance of plant components for integrated heat and water management modules, including pumps, blowers, manifolds and stainless steel tubing: These offer an easier transition path for suppliers who currently produce internal combustion engine and powertrain components.
- Power electronics modules for signal conditioning: Hundreds of thousands will be needed per day.
Near-term applications of solid oxide fuel cells are more likely in niche markets for compact modules that power military vehicle auxiliary power units, and for soldier-support devices such as transmitters, radio receivers, sensing and intelligence-gathering devices, and various other portable gadgets.
In the longer term, individual, regional, national, and international strategies are needed to support the hydrogen economy and drive new fuel-cell manufacturing innovations. NCMS is committed to encouraging these strategies, which should include investment in basic education programs that result in capable fuel cell manufacturing workforces and public support through hydrogen generation, storage, distribution and refueling infrastructures, early adopter incentives, and tax abatements.
The opportunities are many and growing. Getting involved early can mean good things for your business.
Manish Mehta will be a speaker at SME's Fuel Cell Summit 2005, taking place in Uncasville, CT, October 23 to 25. Visit www.sme.org/aet or call Dan Radomski at (313) 425-3147, for more information.
Within the scope of alternative energies, hydrogen fuel cell technology represents a major opportunity for suppliers and is considered the "holy grail" of advanced power for many energy demands and applications. Its uses range from supplying personal and portable power--powering cell phones, laptops, and other devices intended for consumer usage--to industrial and institutional power, military uses, and eventually to large-scale transportation. Currently, its use is not regulated, but in the United States, a federal decision to require fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen fueling stations is expected by 2015. Manufacturers who have invested early in intellectual capital, product and process research, and development stand to benefit.
Aerospace and Defense Solutions Sought
Military aircraft are historically designed for performance, not necessarily for manufacture. This situation creates unique challenges when these high-performance products are placed into production. Because the US Department of Defense's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is no exception--particularly because the department is requiring an aggressive production schedule of "a plane a day"--SME is facilitating a venue where manufacturers can help each other meet this and related production challenges.
Expected to be the largest military aircraft procurement ever, the stealthy supersonic F-35 will replace a wide range of aging fighter and strike aircraft for the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and allied defense forces worldwide. Its collaborative design and manufacturing process relies on a sizable team, including principals Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and their suppliers. All of these companies will have opportunities to discuss their unique challenges with organizations who can help solve them at The Total Manufacturing Experience, a new, one-of-a-kind SME event premiering March 27 - 30, 2006. There, aerospace and defense OEMs will have access to SME's "Solutions Suites," a closed-door environment within which they will hear proposed solutions to their specific manufacturing challenges.
Developing solutions will begin well before the event opens. Initially, aerospace industry OEMs will communicate key production challenges to SME. The Society will then identify and engage potential technology suppliers who can offer solutions to those challenges. On site at The Total Manufacturing Experience, technology suppliers will present their potential solutions in a "Solutions Suite" and, finally, participants will break into smaller workgroups where further development and exploration can take place.
SME is developing the Solutions Suites in cooperation with the Aerospace Automation Consortium, a group of aerospace and defense OEMs, universities, and technology providers from all industries who come together to identify current manufacturing challenges and collaborate towards workable solutions that can overcome challenges in the manufacture of military aircraft.
Given the complexity and high expectations of the F-35--which include speed-to-market and affordability--those collaborating to manufacture the JSF frequently take advantage of the consortium to learn more about how automated systems can change their industry. SME's Solutions Suites will take that forum further by giving aerospace and defense manufacturers a face-to-face, hands-on venue for exploring fast, flexible, and precise automation solutions that meet Department of Defense requirements.
Visit www.sme.org/experience to learn more about SME's Solutions Suites and The Total Manufacturing Experience.
This article was first published in the August 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.