FPT’s New EPowertrain Plant Commences EAxle Production for Nikola Tre BEV
The company’s first carbon-neutral plant employs Industry 4.0 technologies to produce electric axles, central drives and battery packs for commercial vehicles.
Sustainability is an increasingly significant target for many commercial-vehicle manufacturers’ industrial activities and new products, and FPT Industrial is no exception. In late October, the global powertrain brand of Iveco Group inaugurated a new ePowertrain plant in Turin, Italy, the first totally carbon-neutral Iveco Group plant. The facility is fully dedicated to the production of FPT’s electric product range for commercial vehicles, including electric axles, electric central drives and battery packs.
“Iveco Group has set a challenging goal of reaching zero emissions by 2040, ten years before the deadline of the Paris Agreement,” Annalisa Stupenengo, COO at Iveco Group, said at the inauguration event. “This applies equally to our products and to the places where we work to produce them.” Intermediate targets by 2030 include 50% reduction in absolute CO2 emissions compared to 2019, she said, and deriving 100% of total electricity consumption from renewable sources.
SAE Media was on hand for the inauguration and spoke with Alessandro Sezza, Turin Site plant manager, prior to a tour of the new 15,000-sq.m. (161,500-sq.ft.) carbon-neutral facility. He noted that at full capacity, the plant will produce more than 20,000 electric axles for heavy-duty commercial vehicles (HCVs) and 20,000 central drives for integration with existing conventional ICE commercial vehicles up to 8,000 kg (17,600 lb) GVW, as well as 20,000-plus battery packs per year for light commercial vehicles (LCVs), minibuses and buses.
“According to the forecast, we are going to complete the ramp-up in 2024,” Sezza said. At completion of the ramp-up phase, the number of employees is expected to reach about 200 people. The plant has plenty of area for expansion, Sezza noted, when asked if hydrogen fuel-cell production is in the plans for the site. “Currently we don’t have any project specific for the hydrogen [production] here in Turin. Here we are making internal-combustion engines, electrical battery products, so why not also hydrogen?” he replied.
“One-hundred percent of the electrical energy [at the ePowertrain plant] is generated from renewable sources,” Sezza said. “CO2 emissions from natural gas are fully compensated with carbon credits. And energy consumption is managed in accordance with the ISO 50001 standard.” The plant generates energy with solar panels installed on the façade and with a “mini-wind tower.” A 6,000-sq.m. (64,600-sq.ft.) Sustainability Garden in the facility’s internal space, which includes 100 drought-resilient plants with “great CO2 absorption capacity,” reinforces the company’s sustainability focus.
Industry 4.0 technologies
The ePowertrain plant is integrated into FPT Industrial’s Stura area, next to testing and production for conventional ICEs, transmissions and axles. The new plant features three parallel production lines dedicated respectively to battery-pack assembly, electric central drives and HCV electric-axle production. “Human-machine collaboration in the ePowertrain plant is a reality,” Sezza said. “The entire production process has been developed with the support of augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) to reduce the design time of the production line, simulating operational outcome before physical installation.”
A Tech Academy section of the plant floor explores and teaches new skills related to an Industry 4.0 environment, which among other benefits enables the automatic collection and analysis of all data essential to monitor and improve safety, quality and productivity. All production processes are based on highly automated warehouses for the management of components, Sezza said, and developed through electronically-controlled assembly stations.
“At the Tech Academy, we prepare our people for a completely new process, where it is fundamental to manage the information flows provided by robots and automated tools,” he said. “But we also teach the soft skills they need; with a tailored program called ‘In trasformazione,’ we prepare our people to face a complex and fluid scenario.”
In addition to AR/VR, next-generation technologies adopted include 3D printing and “Smart Observer” systems based on intelligent sensors, 3D scanners for metrology-grade measurements, 3D reality simulators and cooperative robots and Automated Guided Vehicles that greatly improve ergonomics and safety for factory workers. “These [Industry 4.0] technologies working together give us a lot of opportunity,” Sezza told SAE Media.
3D printing, for example, is used to produce spare parts for the manufacturing equipment, he said, noting that only plastic materials currently are employed. “In the future, we are also going to use the metallic [materials].” Additive manufacturing also is used to produce prototype components for the combustion engines, he said, to help support workers during the assembly process. “For example, if we’re changing something in the products, we can 3D-print it within one day – 3 hours according to the complexity – and use this new component to prototype the modification of the assembly station,” Sezza explained.
Cloud-based quality checks allow instant detection of problems and end-of-line checks certify the conformity of the products in terms of configuration, performance and safety. On the HCV eAxle line, a station with light signals supports the operator by indicating which component is to be selected and where to mount it. And on the battery assembly line, dielectric carpets protect operators against possible electric dispersions. Thermal-imaging cameras automatically measure battery temperatures, reporting any deviation from the norm.
Electric product range
Production already has commenced in Turin. The heavy-duty eAxle designed for the Nikola Tre BEV is fitted to the commercially available European 4x2 Artic version that launched in September at IAA Transportation in Hanover, Germany. The Tre BEV features nine batteries with a total energy storage up to 738 kWh, delivering a range of up to 530 km (330 miles). With 480-kW continuous power, the eAxle enables the truck to perform applications such as hub-to-hub deliveries and regional hauling. The eAxle also is employed on the fuel-cell variant of the Tre.
Pre-series production has begun for the 140-kW electric central drive and the compact 37-kWh battery pack that will equip the new Iveco eDaily commercial van. Early 2023 will see start of production for the 69-kWh battery pack designed for bus applications that will be fitted on the Iveco Crossway Low Entry, as well as eAxle solutions for high-end automotive applications.
Sylvain Blaise, president of the powertrain business unit, Iveco Group, stressed to SAE Media that FPT Industrial is a supplier to the industry, including to OEM competitors, and that will continue with its electric portfolio. “Being part of Iveco Group, it’s a benefit to be able to anticipate development and to have an in-house customer as we do with Iveco. But we develop solutions for the industry,” he said, noting that currently 40% of its activity is for Iveco Group and 60% for external customers.
Blaise foresees maintaining that 40:60 split for its electric products. “At the beginning, the ratio to internal is a bit higher, because we initiate projects with Iveco as a primary customer,” he said. “But as we ramp-up, we are bringing on additional projects and then, yeah, this would be a fair split.” For its eAxle, he reminded, the initial customer – Nikola – is external.
“The challenge of our industry is to shift to net-zero carbon, and we believe solutions will be multiple, specifically on energy,” Blaise said. “Electrification will play a key role to support this shift,” as will decarbonized fuels for combustion engines such as biomethane and, increasingly, green hydrogen.