Ford to accelerate battery development with $185M 'Ford Ion Park' lab in 2022

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press

Ford Motor Co. said Tuesday it plans to accelerate battery development by devoting a team of 150 people to a new "Ford Ion Park," described by the automaker as a $185 million project focused on technology research — "including the future of battery manufacturing."

The 200,000-square-foot lab will be located in southeast Michigan and will open in late 2022. Ford did not specify a location, nor did it say how many new jobs might be created. 

Ford also announced Tuesday it is putting a battery and benchmarking lab in Allen Park.

While it is not planning to manufacture a large volume of batteries, the company does plan to do pilot manufacturing. 

Part of the inspiration for this effort is driven by supply chain challenges in recent months that have created costly disruptions in the automotive industry and others.

What it means is that Ford will no longer hedge its bets, said Hau Thai-Tang, chief product platform and operations officer, in a conference call with reporters.

"It’s always very difficult, especially for incumbent manufacturers, to navigate a disruptive transition," he said. "The clarity that (Ford CEO) Jim Farley has brought as part of this plan is that we will lead this transition from ICE (internal combustion engines) to BEVs (battery electric vehicles). And we will no longer take an approach of hedging our bets and planning around the uncertainty of how fast that will play out."

This change has "freed the team up" to lead the electric revolution, Thai-Tang said. "We have to create that future rather than wait for it to play out. ... So, this is what’s compelling the creation of Ford Ion Park. And it’s also what’s fueling our strategic choices around where we allocate capital and engineering resources. That’s clearly to accelerate the introduction of full battery-electric vehicles."

Within the past 18 months, he said, “I think we’ve accelerated our ambition. We’re much more bullish and aggressive on how fast we think this transition is going to play out.”

Ford Motor Company CEO Jim Farley stands with a 2021 Mustang Mach-E 4X model outside of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit on Jan. 14.

While former Ford CEO Jim Hackett was more apprehensive about diversifying technology and plunging into projects that would expand company responsibilities, Farley, his successor, is more aggressive about vertical integration that allows the company to enhance control of its parts supplies while containing costs, Thai-Tang said.

The effort is about developing expertise and creating flexibility and better preparing for what's ahead in the rapidly developing electric vehicle segment, Ford said.

"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," Thai-Tang said.

Ford is planning to centralize expertise in battery technology, research, manufacturing, planning, purchasing, quality and finance "to help Ford more quickly develop and manufacture battery cells and batteries."

Ford Motor Co. engineers remove a battery cover to access internal components such as cell arrays, writing and contactor switches at Ford's Battery Benchmarking and Test Lab in Allen Park on April 6, 2021.

Separately, Ford will explore opportunities to evaluate everything from mining to recycling at the new Ford Ion Park.

"We are modernizing Ford's battery development and manufacturing capabilities so we can better control costs and production variables in-house and scale production around the world with speed and quality," Thai-Tang said.

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The Ford lab will include small-scale development for electrode, cell and array design and manufacturing and use of new materials, Ford said.

Anand Sankaran, who has 32 U.S. patents in automotive power electronics and hybrid vehicle technologies, will lead the Ford Ion Park team as its new director. He has been Ford director of electrified systems engineering.

Dane Hardware, design and release engineer, and Mary Fredrick, battery validation engineer, examine internal components like cell arrays, wiring and contractor switches at Ford's Battery Benchmarking and Test Lab in Allen Park on April 6, 2021.

The Allen Park lab is expected to test and identify the right battery cells and chemistries to power Ford's EV lineup.

"While some automakers have placed their bets, we are going to use this lab with the help of partners and suppliers to fine-tune our batteries ... exploring next-generation lithium ion solutions, including solid-state batteries," Sankaran said.

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Ford said the Battery Benchmarking and Test Laboratory, which opened in late 2020 but wasn't announced, is a $100 million, 185,000-square-foot lab that has already analyzed more than 150 types of battery cells.

The lab team will "support battery cell design validation, controls calibration, pack development and pilot battery pack projects with different chemistries," a news release said. "The lab team can replicate the performance of full-scale production batteries under extreme weather and customer use cases, speeding implementation in future vehicles."

Dane Hardware, design and release engineer, and Mary Fredrick, battery validation engineer, measure the voltage of a battery using a digital multi-meter at Ford Motor Company's Battery Benchmarking and Test Lab in Allen Park on April 6, 2021. Since the battery is not connected to a test setup, the meter is used to confirm the battery voltage and check isolation.

The all-electric 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E won the North American Utility Vehicle of the Year as well as praise from consumers, widely viewed as a bellwether by company executives.

Ford plans to invest at least $22 billion through 2025 on electrification.

“Ford’s new global battery center is another indicator that the journey to electrification is moving swiftly — and Michigan will be front and center," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, in a statement on Tuesday. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell with then-Vice President Joe Biden touring the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 2017.

"Ford Ion Park will help create and maintain good-paying union jobs for Michiganders," she said. "It’s critical we strengthen our domestic manufacturing and supply chains for batteries here at home to continue supporting the mobility industry ... that’s why I recently introduced the U.S.A. Electrify Forward Act and the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Future Act to modernize and expand a program used to build and retool auto factories in the United States.”

Gerald Kariem, UAW Ford vice president, said the union remains flexible when it comes to industry transition,

"As we replace the internal combustion engine, we need to make sure that the jobs of tomorrow are good-paying union wage and benefit jobs going forward," said Kariem. "As (UAW) President Rory Gamble has said, 'If we get these investments wrong, the workers will be the ones who suffer. But if we get these investments right, we can build a strong jobs climate with good paying jobs for American families that last for decades.'”

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard at 313-222-6512 her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.