Kentucky manufacturers that produce parts for electric vehicles are expanding their range of components, and space, to meet the growing demand for their products.
Demand is sure to increase as a result of President Joe Biden’s executive order last month that sets a goal of having half of new car sales be zero-emission vehicles by 2030.
“They’re a vision of the future that is now beginning to happen," Biden said. "A future of the automobile industry that is electric. Battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric, fuel cell electric. It’s electric and there’s no turning back."
That vision is already a reality at Trace Die Cast in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The company is manufacturing parts for electric vehicles for an icon of the automobile industry, Ford Motor Company, and also for the ambitious start-up Rivian, which will soon deliver its first vehicles for the general consumer market and already has an order from Amazon for 100,000 delivery vans.
In a climate-controlled equipment testing room at Trace Die Cast in Bowling Green, company engineers recently met with two representatives from Rivian. It’s a collaboration that began this past January. Trace Die Cast President Chris Guthrie said the room is one of the specialized areas created for Rivian.
“This is our testing room for once the parts are produced, before we can ship them to our customer, we bring them into this area where we have to do some final assembly to the components and then also check them to make sure it won’t leak fluids," Guthrie said.
Another climate-controlled space is the Rivian production room.
“And here we have two machining centers from Germany. They’re machining the housings after we cast them. They’re actually machining them to be able to hold the electric motors. They’re massive," said Guthrie. "These are the best machining centers in the world right here. This is the electric motor housings for Rivian we’re producing here.”
Guthrie says the collaboration with Rivian is a unique opportunity.
“We’re the only ones in the world doing what we’re doing for Rivian. We’re also working with a German group, several German companies, to develop this. And also with Rivian out of Illinois and California," he said. "Although we’re a small little company in Kentucky, we’re very fortunate to be a part of this.”
Trace Die Cast began the transformation to producing components for electric vehicles in 2015.
"One of our customers, Ford Motor Company, came to us with a hybrid project and the volume was very low. And it was a significant investment," said Guthrie. "But our team here thought, especially some of our younger engineers, that the world was gonna eventually go to electrical vehicles, and we needed to get out in front of our competitors.”
Trace Die Cast is one of 525 automotive companies in Kentucky. There’s no exact count of how many are making parts for electric vehicles because that’s proprietary information.
One company manufacturing a trademarked product used in electric vehicles is Arkema in Calvert City in Marshall County. Steve Baxter is Arkema’s research and development director for high performance polymers.
“We produce something that’s called Kynar-PVDF. The KY is 'Kentucky' and NAR stands for 'North American Resin'. It’s a polymer. It’s like a plastic and what it does is it acts as a binder to hold all the ingredients together inside the battery itself," Baxter said. "It’s for lithium-ion batteries, so it gets used in consumer electronics, you know, your cell phone, but also in electric vehicles.”
Baxter said the Marshall County plant expanded by 20% in 2018, driven in part by the increasing global demand for lithium-ion batteries.
Then there’s Hitachi, with a recently formed subsidiary to launch a new operation at its Berea location that will manufacture motors for electric vehicles.
Gov. Andy Beshear said in an August news conference that these companies are fueling Kentucky’s growing engagement in the evolving automotive sector.
"In another step that moves Kentucky’s automotive industry further into the electrified future, Toyota announced that it will assemble hydrogen fuel cell modules at its plant in Georgetown beginning this year. These hydrogen fuel cells modules will be available to heavy duty commercial truck makers. Biggest trucks on the road, emission-free," Beshear said. "Remember we announced 250 new jobs in Whitley County for Firestone in that same electric vehicle related market.”
A $51 million expansion at Firestone will increase production of air suspension components for electric vehicles.
Beshear said Kentucky’s geographic location at the center of the U.S. automotive manufacturing corridor is the perfect place to drive the electrified automotive industry into the future.