The Great Battery Race
How S&S Electronics is Staking Claim in the USD $195 Billion Battery Industry
By Andy Jensen
The aisle is dimly lit. For unknown reasons, the big box hardware stores are unable to adequately illuminate their wares—except for the lighting aisle, of course. At the moment, I’m investigating battery-powered lawn mowers. Last year, this store displayed only one battery-powered mower. A year later and there are two different manufacturers offering two different models.
What’s going on here?
To my right, more battery-powered lawn tools are just as dimly lit. I see a trimmer, an edger, and a leaf blower. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, so it takes me half a second to understand all of these tools are powered by the same battery pack. I turn my attention back to the mowers.
‘Would anyone buy a battery-powered mower?’ I think. Then I’m asked to step aside as another customer loads a boxed mower onto a flattop cart. Later, I’m speaking to my daughter on my smartphone. She’s mowing her yard, her first yard, as she just recently purchased her first home.
Out of curiosity I ask, “What mower did you get?” Yes, it’s such a dad thing to ask, but super important, regardless.
“Umm...” She looks down to see. “It’s a battery mower.”
The Race Course
Batteries are in high demand because consumers prefer a battery over a gas-powered motor or an inconvenient power cord. Recreational transportation is also fanning the flames. Our urban centers are flooded with electric scooters and bikes. I did a quick online search for “ebike manufacturers” and found a list that included more than 100 manufacturers worldwide.
According to a May 2020 report published by Acumen, a research and consulting company, the battery industry will generate revenues of $194 billion US dollars by 2027. Manufacturers are racing to grab a piece of a large pie.
The great battery race is a boon for Javier Suniga, a 30-year veteran of the battery world who consults with manufacturers in the design of new battery packs. His company, S&S Electronics, with only 12 full time employees is recognized as a leader in the battery industry.
“There’s no shortage of business,” he says. “I’m consulting with aerospace guys and military people who need help in designing a battery to fit in a particular place. I’m helping retail establishments, like Batteries Plus, provide repair services for the mountain of battery packs that are sold with cordless power tools. And on the R&D side, I supply colleges and universities with the parts they need to design a better power cell. And I could tell you how I’ve helped Hyperloop, but we don’t have that kind of time.”
A walk through the S&S Electronics facility is fascinating. Aisles hold bins filled with the myriad number of parts that create a power pack: an assortment of plastic containers and metal tabs and connectors of different sizes, shapes, thicknesses, and types of metal. As a metaphor, perhaps S&S is the Amazon of batteries. Whatever you’re looking for, S&S either already has it or they can make it.
Organizations come to Javier for help with the design and also in the fabrication. “I provide many companies with pre-assembled components that speed up their manufacturing process,” he explains. “I have the tools that let me quickly create any laser-cut custom tab, something the manufacturer would rather source than create.”
Competition is Fierce
At one point in his life, a business merger forced Javier out of a company he loved and where he learned the battery trade. “The next day, I backed my car out of my small garage and got to work,” he says with a smile. “I turned my one-car garage into my workshop, my warehouse, and my lab. I’m pretty sure my wife was really happy when the company reached a point when the garage was too small. I guess that was just a perk of success.” Now, as an industry leader, competition comes from a different source.
By far, battery packs manufactured in China are attractive to US manufacturers due to price. Javier admits the Chinese battery manufacturers are fierce competitors. “They’re hard to compete against. I understand manufacturers have rigid price points and margins and Chinese prices help them reach those numbers. I can point to quality and transparency as my unique selling point, but that does not always deter a product engineer from going overseas. So, I don’t talk about price, I talk about efficiencies. I can help my customers explore design alternatives that will reduce the number of parts the battery pack requires, which decreases production costs. My ISO certification and reputation help me do what I can to keep US business in the US.”
What the Future Holds
Javier sees Li-ion as just another steppingstone. “When I got started in this business Ni-Cad was king,” he remembers. “It paved the way for everything to get smaller, especially in the electronics world. Today, Li-ion is the de facto standard. It’s done more for batteries than what Ni-Cad did. But it also has an ugly side.”
Javier is referencing the overheating problems the battery faced in its early years. He also recognizes lithium is a rare earth element, which pushes the US market toward dependency on international sources. Lithium also creates an environmental concern.
“S&S is not an R&D shop for creating new battery technology,” he explains. “We help customers take existing battery tech and make it work for their products. But the hydrogen technology I’ve seen is impressive. Whether that’s the next step for battery technology or not, I can’t tell you. But I can tell you with certainty, there will be another step. And it will be more revolutionary than ever. That’s very exciting to me.”
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