At Rowley Road in Coventry, the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) is taking shape. Phase One of construction for the 18,000-square metre building is complete. Phase Two will see the installation of production equipment and services and the internal finishing work required to create the UK’s new £80 million centre for leading-edge battery technologies.
Once complete, UKBIC will work with industrial companies, initially from the automotive sector, on battery development and manufacturing projects, as part of the UK government’s Faraday Battery Challenge. It’s the result of a consortium that comprises Coventry City Council, Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership and the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, a significant and ongoing project is underway to ensure that the facility has the IT infrastructure and software it needs to carry out its work and to collaborate with its industrial partners. As UKBIC’s IT lead, Steve Hill oversees that work - and he characterizes the challenge as one that simultaneously combines an exciting degree of freedom with a fearsome set of non-negotiable constraints.
There’s a lot of freedom, he says, because this is a greenfield site for an entirely new organization, with no history and no established business processes, but a vision for conducting truly innovative work. At the same time, Hill must create - from scratch - a digital and IT infrastructure that will support complex requirements on an extremely limited budget, with just a handful of IT staff and according to a very challenging timeline. He says:
It’s not very often that someone comes to you and says, ‘We don’t have a clue what it is we want. We just know when we need it and what we need it to do. Get on with it.’
A challenging project
Hill, a former BMW employee who came out of retirement to take on this project, has been ‘getting on with it’ for around two years now. For much of that time, he’s been on his own. Even now, he’s got just four people on his internal IT team. That’s meant making some smart decisions around hiring consulting partners and sourcing external experts for IT services and support.
The on-site data center and networking infrastructure for the facility, for example, is being designed and implemented by IT services company CDW, which will subsequently run them on UKBIC’s behalf under a five-year managed services contract. Hill elaborates:
We have something like 12 floor distribution cabinets, a virtualized server capacity, 80 terabytes of on-site storage, Active Directory - all of the things that you would expect in a reasonable sized business.
On the software side of things, UKBIC is working with HCL Technologies on the implementation of Infor CloudSuite Industrial Enterprise (formerly Infor LN) for enterprise resource planning (ERP) and Forcam for its manufacturing execution system (MES).
This software choice was arrived at following a selection process run in compliance with the complex (but very thorough) OJEU standard, says Hill, and taking into account the complexity of the work that UKBIC will be conducting:
What we’ll be doing is short-batch manufacturing, where each project - or ‘campaign’ as we refer to them - is a unique entity in its own right, with its own needs and requirements. Some projects could take up the whole of the facility, others just a small part of it. It could be that a chemical supplier just wants us to mix some slurry. Another company might bring along some cells that they’ve had manufactured or they purchased on the open market, and they want us to build those into modules and packs as the early development phase for a new product.
This means careful attention must be paid to the strict segregation of intellectual property and data obtained from a process along project and client lines. There’s also a very high requirement for traceability data, which also needs to sit within the container of a particular project or client.
Keep it simple
In other areas, Hill is fighting to keep things simple. With Infor selected for ERP, he’s been keen to ensure that customization doesn’t run amok. In fact, he’s avoiding it wherever possible - and that’s led to some difficult conversations both internally and with HCL Technologies’ consultants:
I’m very much of the thinking, ‘Out of the box, and only tweak what you absolutely need to tweak’, because we don’t have the people or resources to get involved in big upgrades or big batches of regression testing. No - just no. The business is about making batteries, not managing software. Some discussions have been more heated than others, but I try to get across that we can’t create a big, bespoke monster, because we’ll never be able to tame it.
That said, some decisions have needed to be more nuanced than others. Early on, Hill decided that a 100% cloud approach was not a good fit for UKBIC. So while the Infor ERP system will sit in the cloud, along with Microsoft 365 Enterprise apps for productivity tools, Forcam’s MES will be implemented in the on-site data center. Again, this is down to the complexities of the work that UKBIC will be doing: many of the manufacturing processes associated with building batteries simply cannot be interrupted by continuity problems with the cloud.
There are, for example, strict time dependencies associated with one process ending and another needing to start, he explains, and the high requirement for product and process traceability data made latency and bandwidth big concerns, he adds:
If someone can’t create a purchase order or post an invoice that day, I’m not that bothered. But if we have to scrap an entire batch of chemicals because we’ve lost a cloud connection, that’s a different matter entirely.
So where is UKBIC today with this implementation? The data centre is about to be commissioned, says Hill, and HCL is hard at work on the business blueprint for the software it needs. This is due to be delivered in late April or early May, and then the build phase will start. The first applications to go live, in early July, will be finance and procurement and other back-office, business-related functions, followed by manufacturing six to eight weeks later (in part, because UKBIC’s waiting for a new release of Forcam to become available.)
That seems early, considering the UKBIC building is still being constructed. And while some manufacturing equipment has already arrived on-site, most of it isn’t expected until the third or fourth quarter of this year. Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, it may show up even later. Hill says:
But the idea for us is to get IT in place - to prove that we have the infrastructure in place and that the functionality is there, that the capability exists, so we’re ready to plug in [plant-floor machinery] as and when it arrives. We’re going a bit early - but it’s early with a conscience.
Given the challenges involved, you might expect Hill’s enthusiasm to be waning by this stage - but in fact, he says he feels like he’s being paid for his favourite hobby:
I’ve had a huge amount of free rein to talk to people, to explore what’s possible. The past two years, they’ve been the hardest I’ve ever worked, but it’s been a fantastic experience. We had no processes, no product, no IT and no culture, so we’ve had to work on all these things in parallel and it’s been a very challenging but unique experience. I think we’re doing very well so far and our funders seem to be impressed with our delivery. Let’s hope it’s a foothold for the UK to get its first gigafactory and a solid supplier base for this technology.