Hansgeorg Böttcher (53) has been working for DB Schenker for over 30 years. For him the topic of battery logistics for e-vehicles carries a positive charge: “I drive a hybrid myself, and I love it!” Photo: Svend Pedersen
Mr. Böttcher, how does the increasing demand for batteries for electric vehicles make itself felt in your field of activity?
Most noticeably! We get lithium-ion batteries delivered to our logistics center in the German city of Hildesheim. There, we check them for damage in a clean room using special testing equipment, and then we package them in line with customers’ requirements. Since we began three years ago, the sales volume has increased twentyfold. In terms of tonnage, we have seen a 1,314 percent increase to 4,600 pallets per month. The global market for batteries is incredibly dynamic, and it will continue to
grow. But that’s it, as far as certainties are concerned. There are so many unanswered questions that trying to get a feel for the market is like the proverbial gaze into the crystal ball.
What are these open questions?
Well, for a start, and if you’ll excuse the hyperbole, if you ask five experts their opinion, you will be given ten different growth forecasts. This is in part due to the fact that every OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) pursues its own strategy. One aims for a 50-percent share of electric vehicles in its production until 2030, whereas the other focuses much more on hybrid drives. Then there is the location aspect: right now, the batteries mainly come from Asia. But the manufacturers are starting to relocate their manufacturing plants to Europe, especially to the eastern parts of the continent. It is possible, however, that OEMs may also gain in importance relative to the battery manufacturers in the future if they set up their own production facilities. All these various factors make it difficult for us to predict the storage and transport capacities that will be needed in future, and at which locations and on which routes.
Is it also possible that the batteries themselves could change over time?
That is yet another unanswered question, and one that is associated with what we’ve just discussed. Right now, the battery manufacturers can more or less decide for themselves what the batteries should look like. But that, too, may change over time – and as a result, the OEMs will be able to exert a greater influence, including on where and how batteries will be installed. There are ideas being floated, for example, about adapting battery sizes to fit the floor assemblies of the vehicles. But again: these are merely ideas at this stage! However, for us it is important to find answers to questions like these. Because our logistics concepts depend on these answers, like the issue of how big the containers need to be that we use for packaging the batteries.
Charged: the growing demand for e-vehicles also leads to ever-increasing demand for batteries for energy storage. An immense challenge for logistics service providers. Photo: iStock/Extreme Media
What does all this mean for you and your team?
It means that we have to observe the market very closely at all times, and remain in touch with both the battery manufacturers and the OEMs. In addition, we must keep an eye on the evolving policy framework. You could compare it to an endurance race where you are not given a chance to take a break. Or with driving according to the prevailing conditions, sometimes in bad weather. Because we must be prepared to expand our capacities or relocate to other locations at any time, and at short notice. And of course we must maintain our good reputation by delivering a first-rate service. This includes providing our staff with extensive training.
Which leads straight to this next question: what are the key issues in relation to the handling of batteries?
Lithium-ion batteries are flammable, and they cannot simply be extinguished using water. That is why their handling requires special safety precautions to be in place. For example, certain minimum distances must be maintained between the batteries and other goods in storage. They also need to be transported and stored within defined temperature ranges. We coordinate with the fire brigade and with the authorities as far as the relevant regulations are concerned. The area where we inspect the battery modules is protected against electrostatic discharge, so as to prevent voltage discharges that could damage the batteries. We have installed a dust extraction system to guarantee freedom from dust. Until the time they are installed, batteries are also a highly sensitive commodity. But we do have the necessary experience and infrastructure to handle them accordingly.
In the context of e-mobility in particular, batteries also have their critics, because their environmental footprint is far from perfect. To what extent does this concern you?
We are monitoring the developments and ongoing discussions in this area very closely! No doubt the era of the lithium-ion batteries is finite. My expectation is that in a few years’ time. we will be dealing with completely different, more environmentally friendly battery technologies. That will come with their own requirements, of which we know absolutely nothing at this point. But we will face up to the challenge! There is also the fact that right now we are focusing on the subject of e-mobility. But other markets will be developing in which energy storage systems of various kinds that are fed by electricity will be needed – for example in private households. And I am very confident that there will be plenty to do there for us as logisticians!