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The rise of electric vehicles quietly powers firms, research in Atlantic Canada

December 17, 2021   by (CP) Michael Tutton

HALIFAX – Pat Ryan’s recent advances into the electric-vehicle parts market are quietly fuelling his factory’s expansion at an industrial park on the edge of Halifax, far from Canada’s automotive heartland.

“To be involved at this early stage, it’s pretty fantastic,” the 60-year-old president of Neocon International said in a recent interview at the site of the specialty plastics firm he founded 27 years ago.

In the past few years, the company – whose name is an abbreviation for “new concepts” – has been bidding successfully on the manufacture of cargo protection, floor coverings and electroplated parts such as bumper protectors for the next generation of electric vehicles.

That’s key to helping the 300-person firm gradually add 138 people to its workforce over the next two years, he said.

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Canada’s automotive factories and parts makers have traditionally been centred in Ontario, with some manufacturing clusters in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia. For Ryan and a handful of other Atlantic Canadian firms and researchers, the rising tide of the electric vehicle sector appears likely to change historical patterns.

However, their hopes hinge on constant innovation, rather than mass production of a few commodities or new assembly plants.

Ryan’s firm is making parts for electric vehicles that include the Nissan Ariya and the Cadillac Lyric. Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, his engineering staff won bids to fabricate plastic flooring of the Amazon delivery vans to be manufactured by Rivian Automotive.

The American electric vehicle maker, which has the backing of Ford and Amazon, is planning to ramp up production of its trucks, vans and SUVs after raising billions on the stock market. The firm plans to build 100,000 electric delivery vans at its factory, a former Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill.

Ryan doesn’t hide his excitement at getting in on the ground floor with the industry’s latest entrant.

“An electric delivery van for Amazon! You think it’s a sweet spot? Absolutely, it’s a sweet spot,” he said, estimating it will add “tens of millions” to Neocon’s revenues.

Prior hopes in the region for vehicle and parts manufacturing – most famously the short-lived Bricklin sports cars assembled in Saint John, N.B., in the 1970s – fizzled. But this time, there’s world-leading science to back East Coast entrepreneurs.

Across the city from Ryan’s plant, Prof. Jeff Dahn’s battery lab on the third-floor of Dalhousie University’s Georgian-style physics building has been generating patents and has spun off a publicly traded firm.

Dahn, 64, is known for developing new battery chemistries for Tesla and creating equipment that estimates the lifetime of the lithium ion batteries currently at the core of the electric vehicle revolution. His lab developed methods of measuring tiny amounts of degradation in the batteries as they are charged and recharged, allowing the facility to provide swifter estimates of their longevity than traditional testing systems.

“What we try to do is improve lithium ion batteries and develop next generation technology that didn’t exist yet,” he said during an interview at his lab.

Chris Burns, a graduate from Dahn’s lab, has gone on to found the publicly traded firm Novonix in Halifax, which has expanded from eight employees testing lithium ion batteries and their components into a research centre with about 55 staff members in Halifax and a similar number in the United States.

In 2017, Novonix began testing the potential lifespan of synthetic graphite materials as a potential electrode in the batteries, leading to the creation of a division in Chattanooga, Tenn., he said during a recent interview. This division is scaling up mass production of the material _ with the goal of hiring 300 workers and producing 150,000 tonnes annually by 2030.

“The challenge before us is affordability and longevity ? We need to make sure the battery will last as long as the vehicle will be in use,” Burns said.

Burns said he opted to locate the 28,000 square-metre graphite production plant in Tennessee due to the renewable, low-cost electricity in the state, a large labour force, proximity to manufacturers and suppliers and large incentives from the U.S. government.

“It will be challenging for Nova Scotia to attract significant manufacturing opportunities, but we have huge opportunities to continue to develop technologies which ? may be scaled up elsewhere,” he said.

David Swan, an engineer based in Tatamagouche, N.S., who worked on early versions of electric vehicle batteries, said the challenge for parts makers anywhere in North America is the extremely competitive nature of the automotive manufacturers. He said he’s observed they won’t hesitate to shift loyalties to fresh parts suppliers if the costs are lower.

“What starts off as a nice relationship becomes a highly competitive one,” he said. “It’s not an easy industry to live in.”

Still, Ryan sees opportunities for companies that innovate to meet the electric vehicle’s requirements for lighter parts, while an expanding interior capacity of the cars allows his firm to come up with more flooring and storage proposals.

For example, the floor mat he’s making for the Nissan Ariya is about 60 per cent of the weight of a traditional version of the product.

“Are we actually going to make electric vehicles in Halifax? That’s probably a bit of a stretch,” he said. “But are we going to have a good, robust opportunity to supply the next generation of electric vehicles? Why not?”