Chatted up with Tarun, a young blogger from Delhi who runs a channel called EV Gyan. Tarun’s day job, ok make that afternoon job, is at a BPO. He starts around 1300 hrs. He works for a US client, where he does account reconciliation There are follow-up calls that have to be made. Currently in WFH mode. Quite happy with that. Saves him three hours a day in travel. Also reduces overheads for the company. Maybe this is going to be the future of the BPO industry.
Tarun started EV Gyan in 2019, when he was in the process of researching EVs. He himself was in the market for one. He ended up buying the Revolt motorcycle. It was one of the first batches; has not given him significant maintenance issues from the time it was purchased. Tarun used to regularly swap batteries in the first year, but does not swap nowadays. A few months ago, he got a brand new battery at the swap station. Since then he has stayed with the same battery. In extreme cold, there is a drop of about 5% in range. But age related range degradation has not been significant.
I met with Preeti Gupta, a freelancer with the BBC. I asked her about organisations that she has covered and which have impacted her. She talked of Sonal, who runs https://protsahan.co.in, in Delhi which is doing good work in educating slum girls. Then there is Safeena Hussain, who runs a Mumbai based NGO, https://www.educategirls.ngo, which works with 7500 schools across the country. Safeena is married to a famous film producer, Hansal Mehta.
Chatted with Rajeev, who covers the auto sector for ET Prime. In the Indian car world, the profit per vehicle is quite good, but the number of vehicles sold has reduced, thanks to production constraints forced by chips shortage. In contrast, the production constraint in the two wheeler industry, is only low demand. ET Prime has officially got about 100,000 paid subscribers. Practically it may be half of that. One of the reasons for the upward swing in paid subscribers has been the buoyant share market. Everybody wants to become rich, and they felt that subscribing to ET might help them get there faster. Was informed that the serious money for print media, apart from advertising, is in events.
There was another journalist who works with the Hindu. Like ET, even the Hindu offers only a few stories free; the rest are open only for subscribers. She covers startups. I asked her about start-ups that she has liked, She talked of Bolt, which is setting up charging stations for two wheelers using 15 A plug points. She talked of the Dream 11 backed Rario, which is into cricket NFTs. And there is Meesho, a social commerce app. I had assumed Meesho had a business model like Udaan, which is into stocking up retailers. Turns out that Meesho is a modern day Group-on, but more grocery focussed. It enables groups of people to come together and buy collectively.
The company had hired 20 Innovas for media transport, two journalists per car. We stopped at Murugan Idli (Reminds me of Channel V’s Quick Gun), for what I found later on, was lunch. The sumptuousness of the Hilton breakfast prevented me from having anything more than a coffee. I was told that the Gun powder loaded Murugan idli is world famous in Tamil Nadu.
It was 1400 hours by the time we had covered the 120 km to the Ola Future factory, in the Sipcot industrial area at Pochampally, in district Krishnagiri . The Ola guys like to call it Olapatti. Ola was founded in 2011 by Bhavesh, a Punju from Ludhiana, who is married to Rajlakshmi, a Tam Brahm. The cab sharing service started in 2012. 2018 was when they went International. 2018 was also the year they got into electric vehicles. The original idea was three wheeler rickshaw battery swapping. But Ola soon realised that swapping is not a great business model. So they pivoted to electric two wheelers manufacturing. Ola’s fingers are now in a multitude of pies - resale of car insurance., auto finance and is now even into second hand cars. In a way they are also in the data business –the current S1 Pro scooters alone are sending back data at the rate of half a million km per day.
A Brazilian expat, Jose Pinheiro, heads manufacturing at Ola Electric. He joined Ola in Nov 20, after a 45 year stint at GM. He stays put at Krishnagiri itself. At GM, he headed the Latin American operations and was responsible for plants with a production capacity of a million vehicles per year. His experience at Ola has been quite different from GM. What the likes of GM would take 2 years to build, Ola did in eight months. Over 45 years, Jose thought he knew all the answers, but Bhavesh has been asking him different questions.
Construction of the Future factory started in 2020. Being a steel structure, the pace of construction was good. Steel prices have gone north in two years, am sure that the market value of the asset will be much more than the book value. They had a good safety record in construction. Almost 7 million man hours of work happened without any accidents. The target is to have 2 million square feet of constructed area. About a third of construction has already been completed. When it is fully functional, the factory will be putting out 10 million units per annum. Or one scooter every two seconds. The plan is to have 10 assembly lines, each delivering one scooter every 20 seconds.
There is a provision for three assembly lines in the current shed. Right now, only one is operational. I waited at one of the stations and found that one scooter was passing me every minute. So production is about 60 an hour, or 480 a shift. With breaks, the actual day’s production could be about 700-800 in two shifts. With three shifts, production capacity can be taken to be a thousand per day. I don’t think the company is currently producing those numbers.
Difficult to guess sales level from production. I didn’t see enough stocks of sub assemblies. Also the paint shop was operating at a very low level. I didn’t see any despatches happening, which are important in a plant that is functioning at full capacity. There are 30 state distribution centres. Currently they deliver within a month of order. The target is to get this down to one week. The company opened bookings in March and they believe that they will be able to deliver all of March booking in the next two months. After that, I think an open booking system will start.
Phase 1 of the Future Factory is a steel shed of dimensions 600 m by 300 m by 17 m. Inside the shed, a pit has been dug to create a 2 acre forest on the shop floor. The ceiling of the forest area will be opened up once the soil laying is done. Instead of opening the ceiling, they can look at installing transparent sheets, so that the trees can do the job of filtering the inside factory air! Beyond the shop floor forest, there is another shed planned, of similar dimensions. There is also a 100 acre forest being planned around the main plant. We were not told of any rainwater harvesting plan, so I guess most of the water is coming by pipeline. The paint shop alone requires about one lakh litres of makeup water every day. (Not a very high figure by auto standards.) 95% of the water is recycled.
The factory was quite clean. Noise levels at the factory were low. There are six air zones. Ventilation was good – with ducts for water-cooled air and 10 metre diameter ceiling super-fans. One of the big plus points of these fans is that they run at minimal noise levels. The air flow is created more by the length of the blades, than by the speed of the blades. Would be interesting for my friend Mathew Job at Crompton to see if larger fans reduce noise levels in smaller office / home environments.
1800 women work at the factory. Given its location, getting operators with experience would have been a challenge. The initial Idea was to have a 70-30 gender split, but then Bhavesh asked why not a 100 percent female workforce? And that is how it is today. Most operators are fresh science graduates from nearby towns. I tried asking about starting salary but did not get that information. The fresher training program is between 1 to 3 months. It’s on the job training for the operators. Bhavesh claimed that half the managers are women, but I didn't see so many of them. I guess with time, upward mobility will happen for some of the operators.
Sad fact at Ola is that hardly any one drives the Ola scooter to work. There are about 50 buses that ferry folks the 15 to 20 km that they require to reach the factory. Sadly the bus fleet is diesel Tempo Travellers. I wonder if Bhavesh uses an electric car himself! Dog-fooding is seriously required - Team Ola. Go Electric yourself. The Nagpur Ola Mahindra E20 experiment flopped, but with better cars coming in - Ola , the cab company, should revisit their EV strategy. We have already seen the likes of BluSmart doing good work in Delhi with EV cabs.
The S1 is built on a steel frame, which has about 40 child parts. Frame welding is done in-house in a small ABB weld line. Ola could have outsourced chassis welding, but they believe that the scooter build quality will depend on their welding capabilities. There are two 6 Axis robots that do the welding. The welding section should have been in a separate building, but the grand idea was to put everything under one roof. There is a separate air purification plants for the welding zone and PM 2.5 levels are better than most Indian roads. There is a 3D inspection of the frame, with vehicle quality data getting into the cloud, right at the manufacturing stage.
The battery is the heart of the factory and the vehicle. 35 to 40% of the vehicle cost is battery. It weighs 24 kg. The chemistry is NCA, which is again what Tesla uses. Compared to NMC chemistry, NCA has a a very high thermal runaway temperature rise of about 470 deg C per minute. For NMC it is 200 deg C per minute. And the king of thermal runaways is the LFP, with a rise of barely 1.5 deg C per minute. No wonder, Tesla is now shifting towards LFP. And I hope Ola also does that soon. Ola guys have done experiments like storing the battery at 120 degree Celsius and testing it at temperatures of up to 70 degree Celsius. They believe that their battery can operate at 60 degrees Celsius..
Heat management is done by a conductive thermal layer at the bottom and top. There are fins at the sides for cooling the pack. Thermal Interface Material is applied at the bottom and at the top of the pack. About 400 grams of material is used in a layer which is a few millimetres thick. The thermal interface material, made by mixing a white fluid with a grey fluid, is applied by an ABB Robot. There is a 5° C gradient across the pack. The only suspense is how good a cooling job a plastic case and plastic fins would do. A little bird tells me that the original Etergo design called for an aluminium battery case. But portability in the Etergo design made them go in for lighter plastic. With the current design being a fixed pack, Ola folks can relook the aluminium option.
The central tunnel on the floor board is used to create space for the handle of the battery. It could serve as a cooling duct for the battery. There is a top cover and bottom cover. To make the battery pack into a single integral unit you have UV sensitive glue applied at four spots per cell in the bottom cover and two spots per cell in the top cover. After the robot applies the glue, the batteries are put in and the pack goes through a UV tunnel to fast curing of the glue. The glued covers are kept in a dark area because ultraviolet rays in the sunlight start the curing process prematurely. There is an automated visual check to confirm proper of glue.
Inside a pack, there are 16 cell lines in parallel and 14 in series, making it a total of 224 cells. LG is the single vendor for cells. The Ola team visited almost a hundred manufacturers before deciding on LG. The cells are stored in a special low-temperature area. There are two cell modules in one battery pack. 112 cells go into the LH module and the same number in RH module. 4 cells are picked together and placed in one line by the pick and place robot. In the front portion of the battery the line length goes down to 3 cells. Each NCA cell is rated at 3.6 V, 5 Ah, so each line has a voltage of 3.6 * 14 = 57. 6 V. All 16 lines put together, you have 16 % 5 = 80 Ah. So energy storage of pack is 57.6 * 80 = 4.6 kWh.
Cells are qualified and characterized by impedance. Voltage differential in sorting is at intervals of about 10 mV. I could see most of them going into a single sorting line. Was told that tolerances are close, so most times cells go into just two sorting lines. There is an aluminium bus bar for connecting the cells in series. In the battery pack, there are provisions for current cut-offs and venting. The cells are attached to an aluminium bus bar using an APK Delvetech wire bonding machine. Incidentally Tesla also uses wire bonding. The wire act as a fuse which cut off currents if they exceed a certain limit. The wire material is also aluminium. Sampling is done to check the bonding force and the depth of the wire bond into the busbar.
There are 25 sensors in the BMS, along with telematics. Data is ported out every hundred microseconds. Temperature checks are done so that the BMS can isolate in case of short circuit or high temperatures. The BMS is a wee bit larger than the PowerSwap BMS. The connectors are bolted to the BMS. There are four nuts on the BMS: two on the battery side and two on the vehicle side. There are 14 screws which need to be tightened during battery pack assembly. There are electrical torque wrenches. There is a green light that lights up on a panel placed in front of the operator then the correct torque has been achieved.
The pack is IP67 rated, which means that it is water and dust resistant. To justify the rating, the assembled battery goes for an air leak test. Air at 97 millibar is sent into the pack and pressure drop is checked. The lower the pressure drop the better is the sealing. Some of the packs go through a water immersion test. It is heartening to know that the scooter has gone through a 500 mm water wading test.
There is a quick charge station, which does end of the line rejection. Rejection at a later stage is expensive, as the full charge -discharge test takes 8 hours per pack, and consumes a lot of energy. The batteries are then loaded onto a trolley and testing is done with batteries mounted on the trolley itself. A company called makes the battery test equipment. The battery section has an air conditioned space for the charge-discharge test that happens for every pack on Chroma ET machines. Each battery takes about 8 hours to do that.
The cells are at a 30% SoC during the assembly operation. SoC is taken up from 30 to 100 % then got down from 100 to 20 %. In final stage, SoC is got up from 0 to 50 %. Currently the discharge test load is resistive. They should look at using the battery discharge energy for running equipment on the battery line or pump energy back into the factory grid. The battery unit can produce only about 0.5 million batteries, so it may end up being a bottleneck in future. The current rejection rate at pack level is about 3-5%.
There are two paint shops: one for the plastic parts and one for the frame. The paint is solvent based for plastic and water based for frame painting. The paint is being currently imported from Germany. There are 16 polypropylene plastic parts that require painting. Only the exterior surfaces are painted. There is positive pressure in the paint shop maintained through a down draught. The parts are first taken through a pre cleaning process. Then you have a station where hand cleaning is done using Isopropyl alcohol. Electrostatic paint is used for painting. A non conductive primer is applied before painting starts. Then the parts are cleaned with de-ionized air.
The painting robot is covered in cloth and a layer of plastic. 10 colors input possible at the painting robot. It requires 40 seconds for a color change. At the end of the painting line there is a manual touch up, followed by a heated area where the primer is flashed off. Then there is a clear coat application, using an ABB robot again. The air filtration unit also cools the air to 22 degree C before it is re-circulated in the painting area. Could see a lot of paint being sprayed outside the part, but was told that there is 85% efficiency in paint usage.
For frame painting section, water based paints are used. Water is recycled using RO. 100,000 liters of make up water is required. At the end of the line, there is a regen oxidizer, which is a complicated way of saying that the solvent is burned here. The burnt air is filtered and the hot air is supplied to the paint oven at 100 degree Celsius. There are seven cleaning tanks for the frame. For internal coating, there are holes in the frame. In the Front fork assembly there is a bottom red plastic part, I guess that must be a seal for the bearing. There were not too many frames being painted when we visited.
We ended the tour by visiting the assembly line. There are 40 stations on a 112 m long conveyor. I liked the design of the conveyor. Was 10 feet wide and moves at about 3 kmph; the trolleys and workers move along with the scooters on the conveyor. Each trolley is kitted out with all the components that are required for making the bike. This ensures that the flexibility and customisation. The painted plastic parts are not put on the trolleys. They are kept in separate bins.
There are a lot of Novus Carry autonomous vehicles, which are used for material handling. These guys dock and charge on their own. These autonomous vehicles also move at the same speed as the conveyor. The main aggregates are the powertrain, the front fork subassembly and the boot subassembly. The PMSM motor is not being made in house, but there are plans to do that soon. There are four dynamometers at the end of the line. 25 parameters are checked like braking distance, max speed, etc.
- What’s Ola’s take on the fire incidents?
Global EV companies have also had fire incidents. Remedial measures should be taken. For the Pune fire, an external agency has been asked to investigate and report back to the company. Based on the report, recall of batches can happen. This is going to increase consumer confidence. Fire is also a problem with ICE. Although Okinawa and Pure have recalled, unless the root cause is figured out, there is no point in recall. Ola supports penalty if government feels that it can help improve safety of EV industry. Scooter has been tested. A lot of re-engineering was done on the Etergo. Only the style was kept. NMC is energy dense. Summer is not really a problem for fire. Combustion of the cell happens at only 120 degree Volkswagen cars have caught fire even in snow. Future products could be LFP based. Short circuit video was shown where bonding wire melts and disconnects during short circuits.
- Did the speed of the launch lead to a defective scooter?
New disruptors always create discomfort. There is an increase in noise level in media. He believes that Ola's issues can be fixed because they are so much software driven. Software fixes are easier and faster. Ola is organised by tech verticals, not by products.
- Why are new products like cars being looked at when the scooters are not yet perfected?
The customers are ultimate judges of our quality, because they vote with their money. Don't underestimate us. We are very transparent with our goals. Not only are we getting into cars, we are also getting into cell manufacturing. Car is slated to be launched in 2024. For export, autonomy is going to be important. Affordable EV space is important to the company. Sub 10 lakh car is relevant to Indian markets. We will definitely try to be there. The company is also working on autonomous electric vehicles. We were demo’ed one. It had cameras and lidars. Speed was 15 kmph. They believe that work on autonomous vehicles is important for the car project. Frugality is reason two companies were purchased. Snow dot, or something like that.
- There are thermal issues in hyper mode. What are you doing about it?
Ather also has similar issues. You need to de-rate the scooter then.
- How many bookings have been cancelled?
Was not explicit, but some of them have been. Lower-priced variant S1 will be launched soon.
- On the threat from China for raw material supplies for Ola’s cell manufacturing
China controls the processing of raw material, not the raw material itself. Latin America, Africa, Australia and US have all got proven Lithium reserves. As Lithium prices increase, like oil, there would be more exploration. As demand picks up, more sites will open up.
- Direct to customer, is that impacting sales?
Ola is not bothered about Vahan statistics. We wanted distribution all over the country. Vehicles have been delivered to over 1800 pin codes, or 95% of India. This could be the future even for the established players. Delivery times are down 70 to 80% with experience. Customer is happy because everything happens at home. Twitter is full of delivery videos. Do you think a dealer takes more care of the scooter than we do? We control the end experience.
- Has Bhavish resigned?
Not stepping back from day to day operations, but going deeper into engineering and transformational projects. Hence the new COO. Bhavesh continues to be as detail-oriented as ever. In full control of company. Compared to ICE companies, we work at speeds that are three to five times higher. Chairman reviews are mostly technical. Whether it is a new SoC algo or some other hardware. Nothing slips, so nothing can be taken for granted. India needs to be in a global league of Nations, as far as Bhavesh is concerned. He will continue to be staying out of India.
These questions were asked by multiple journalists and i documented what i could. All in all a very revealing day. We wish the OLA Electric team, the best.