Battery manufacturing prospects in Windsor grow with new $20-million innovation centre

Electric Autonomy Canada

The R&D facility, bankrolled by a local subsidiary of auto parts giant Flex-N-Gate and the Ontario government, will house a team of scientists working on battery designs and chemistries that its founders hope will help bring a battery cell gigafactory to the province.

Windsor is hoping to become a player in the electric vehicles battery supply chain with the launch of a new battery research facility spearheaded by American global auto parts manufacturer and supplier Flex-N-Gate.

The provincial government and Flex-N-Gate are investing $1.5 million and $18.5 million, respectively, to establish the Flex-Ion Battery Innovation Centre.

“[This] is a very important move for the province of Ontario to be leading in the electric vehicle and the electric vehicle battery space,” says Vic Fedeli, Ontario’s minister of economic development, job creation and trade, in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.

Ontario $1.5 million is being invested through the province’s Regional Development Program, while the municipality of Windsor is providing another $535,000 through its Community Improvement Program.

Flex-N-Gate, which is owned by Pakistani-American billionaire businessman Shahid Khan, is investing its $18.5-million share through its Windsor-based subsidiary Ventra Group.

“This investment by Flex-N-Gate is a very strong signal of their desire to be involved in electric vehicle batteries,” says Fedeli. “The innovation lab that they’re establishing is exactly the kind of investment that we need to help us move — not only out of the pandemic but move into the EV battery space.”

Supporting a domestic supply chain

At the Flex-Ion Centre, there will be 18 battery engineers and scientists developing advanced battery chemistries and designs suited to EVs. The facility will have a pilot production line and the team will work alongside researchers from the local St. Clair College and University of Windsor to “assess, develop and optimize materials and performance in the commercialization of prototype batteries and emerging storage technologies, helping to ensure durable competitiveness,” according to the announcement press release.

“[We have] a full dry room with a full coating system all in a production, with inline processes that we can produce batteries,” says Guido Benvenuto, Flex-N-Gate vice-president of engineering in an interview with Electric Autonomy. “We can validate the process in a continuous setup and also do research in order to minimize some of the inefficiencies.”

The short-term goal of the facility is to develop battery chemistries using local minerals in order to integrate Canada’s EV battery supply chain and, ultimately reduce reliance on the international trade partners for technology and battery cells.

“Having a battery supply chain and an ecosystem around the supply is what we’re looking to [develop],” says Benvenuto. “So by setting up Flex-Ion, and making this one of our strategic goals, it would also get the Canadian government engaged both at the provincial and federal levels to work on all of the upstream processes.”

Ultimate goal to build a gigafactory

Once the centre opens its doors in July, Benvenuto explains that Flex-N-Gate wants to build up Ontario’s bench strength in battery production in preparation for an eventual cell manufacturing plant.

“So, what does it take to get to a gigafactory? Well, we need customer contracts,” says Benvenuto. “We’re in early discussions with several customers right now on potential applications and we are working on a timing plan to… validate our battery chemistry. Once that is established and we could be awarded business; at that point [we] launch a gigafactory.”

Where any such battery cell manufacturing plant would be located is unknown, but company officials will be advocating for it to be within the range of the R&D centre in Windsor.

“Windsor is the automotive capital of Canada. We believe the proximity to customers being in Windsor is ideal and we believe that it’s very attractive for scientists in southwestern Ontario as we build our own academic ecosystem,” says Benvenuto.

Ontario’s EV battery ambitions

Flex-N-Gate’s ambitions to develop a battery hub in Windsor, if successful, will be a boon for both the company and the province. The project also happens to intersect with a key economic sector the government is keen to capitalize on.

As part of the Ontario government’s Phase 2 of its auto strategy “Driving Prosperity: The Future of Ontario’s Automotive Sector,” the province has already made public that it is looking to become an electric vehicle manufacturing and autonomous research hub.

“We are working hard to attract an electric vehicle battery manufacturer and I would say that’s our mission number one, right now, for the province of Ontario,” says Fideli.

The government is in discussions with several battery manufacturers and has pledged to support EV battery manufacturers that want to set up in Ontario, added Fideli.

Last year, Stellantis announced it has plans to build two battery cell manufacturing plants in North America. There is no word yet on where the plants will be located, but Stephen MacKenzie, president and CEO of Invest WindsorEssex, told Electric Autonomy at the time that the number of vehicle manufacturing facilities in Ontario, closeness to the U.S., and the ability to source minerals such as lithium and nickel are a few desirable factors for a potential battery plant to be located in Windsor.

But whether it ends up being Stellantis or another company that sets up a battery manufacturing plant in Ontario, Fedeli says the government is ready.

“We are very confident that we will be successful in landing our first gigafactory, which we hope will lead to others wanting to locate in Ontario,” says Fedeli.

“We’ve got everything they need. And yes, we’ll bring our cheque books.”