Every battery – including those in electric cars – basically consists of four components. One of them is the so-called separator. The Chinese company Yongtuo New Materials is one of the major producers of this component. In an interview, CEO Li Hongli reports on how his company has become a pioneer in this future-oriented industry.
an interview with Li Hongli, CEO at Yongtuo new material
Mr. Hongli, how long has Yongtuo been in the separator business and how has the market developed since then?
When my team and I started producing separator films in 2004, Chinese companies had a global market share of less than ten percent. Now, more than 70 percent of global demand is covered by Chinese manufacturers. And demand is increasing rapidly: while 20 years ago, around 600 million square kilometers were sold per year, the market now demands 20 billion square kilometers per year.
Does this growth come solely from the area of electromobility?
The Chinese separator manufacturers have long since evolved from technology followers to technology pioneers. At Yongtuo, for example, we are already looking at the storage of renewable energies – an even larger market than batteries for electric cars.
Yongtuo New Materials
What advantages do you have over your competitors – also in China?
Because we’ve been around for so long, we’ve witnessed the entire technology shift and have been able to gain a lot of experience and build up our USPs (advantages).
No.1 is quality of our products – top intensity whilst thinnest in the world.
No.2 is cost. This industry is extremely machine-intensive thus requires huge investments. Today we have significantly lower costs here than our competitors do, as our machines are designed 100 percent in-house. Our time to set up one production line is also only about 50 percent length as our competitors do. In addition, we used the time to continuously optimize our production line, and by today we are able to produce top quality at 20 percent less cost. We also have a fantastic team.
No.3 is our shareholder, Tsinghan Holding Group, which has a complete investment chain in the Electrical Vehicle (EV) battery industry, from the raw materials as nickel to battery producer – this of course brings us a lot of synergy.
No.4 is our unique self-developed Big Data system, it gives so much advantages in quality, standardization and traceability to our products. I think we will talk about it in more details in the following.
You spoke of the claim to always deliver top quality. Does digitization help you with this?
Absolutely. You have to know that the production process is extremely complex – one production line is around 200 meters long with 1,000 plus parameters taken into account. Therefore, it’s a big challenge to the engineers as they have to ensure the product’s consistency. The finished product is normally between 1000 and 2000 meters of foil fit on a standard roll, in the past, in order to check the quality of the products before delivery, one meter was cut off each roll and checked before delivery. If the quality was okay on that meter, you assumed the rest of it was okay, too. For sure this is not the best way to control the quality and production process.
Today, by using the Big Data system and AI embedded, our quality assurance is drastically improved. The system is able to collect the data of every meter on the production line and compare to the pre-set-up parameters model – this parameters model is built up on massive data and also continuously adjusting itself – on this basis, we can now make predictions of our product parameters with an accuracy of 99.95 percent of the entire roll, instead of only ‘one meter’ as sample in the past. Consequently, the uniformity of our product is on top level and our production setup optimizes itself continuously, which makes us easily copy to the new lines. This also relieves the engineers and increases transparency.
How do customers benefit from this transparency?
In the production of batteries for electric cars, safety is crucial, and the separator plays an important role in this. We store the production data for ten years which can be shared with our customers (battery maker). If there is a defect, the customer can read the data via the QR code on the pack and thus more efficiently identify the root cause. This traceability of our products is a real competitive advantage – for us and our customers.
How will the Chinese electric car industry develop?
I am very confident of the Chinese EV industry. With the government’s support and guidance, after 20 years development, EV has become a very popular and welcomed products to the market and the technologies have also been rapidly developed, e.g. compared to 20 years ago, cost, efficiency and safety of EVs are all dramatically improved. A big advantage of China: We can now produce all the components of an electric car in our own country – an entire ecosystem.
What do you recommend to German automobile manufacturers on their way to the electric future?
In the production of conventional cars, German manufacturers have always had the advantage of an excellent supply chain and excellent standardization. With electric drives, however, they entered the market too late and reacted too slow, therefore lost partially the advantage in the supply chain – as the supply chain of EV is not 100% the same of conventional cars. Therefore, personally I suggest them to be more open to cooperate with foreign suppliers, e.g. the battery is a key component of e-mobility, they should therefore integrate the relevant technology from Chinese, Korean or Japanese suppliers into their supply chain.
A separator is an indispensable part of every battery. It physically and electrically separates the negative electrode (cathode) and the positive electrode (anode). This avoids short circuits. At the same time, the separator must be permeable to ions so that chemical energy can be converted into electrical energy. Fine-pored plastics or fleece are therefore predominantly used as the material for the separator.
The producer of separators belongs to Tsinghan Industry. He holds the patents for the “ultra-thin diaphragm technology” and the “digital diaphragm technology”. In the near future, the separators will be manufactured at three different production sites in China. The CEO of Yongtuo New Materials is Li Hongli, who since 2004 already devoted himself to the diaphragm industry.