Solving the Power Problem for a New Generation
By: Lyle Smith
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Forget the mousetrap. In today’s world, it’s build a better battery and the world will beat a path to your door. In the case of Oakridge Global Energy Solutions in Palm Bay, that’s exactly what’s happening.
“WE MAKE COOL batteries for really cool stuff,” says Oakridge Global CEO Steve Barber. Walking through the Palm Bay facility, Barber shows off all manner of battery-powered products they’ve worked on for their customers from toy drones to golf carts to the full line of Harley Davidson motorcycles. Not to mention some of the military grade drones air and naval that can’t be described in detail here due to national security clearance matters.
“We ask our clients exactly what they are looking for in a battery,” Barber says, “and then what would they pay for a product like that.”
The Oakridge management team is committed to several mission drivers, including ensuring that their products are cost competitive. The Chinese market produces most of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, but balancing quality with cost has always been a big challenge for the Chinese manufacturers. The team at Oakridge focuses on quality, reliability and basically making the best product they know how.
Oakridge has several large military contracts that span every branch of the U.S. armed forces, but Barber is quick to point out that their military clientele was not their primary objective when they began in earnest in 2014. Unlike so many businesses along the Space Coast, their team never consciously focused on the military market.
“We felt that if we made the best possible product, the customers who needed that quality and reliability would seek us out,” according to Barber.
And in the end, that’s exactly what happens today. It is not uncommon for high-ranking military or other potential customers to call Oakridge directly and ask about their products first-hand.
“Customers call us up often saying they have three problems,” says Barber, “Batteries, batteries, batteries.”
THE LITHIUM ADVANTAGE
Lithium-ion batteries are significantly lighter, smaller and more powerful than traditional lead-acid batteries. To the point, a single lithium-ion battery stack weighing in at a mere 14 pounds can drive a golf cart that traditionally takes six full- size auto-style lead-acid batteries, each weighing 65 pounds.
The company is especially excited about their recent release of its Liberty Series starter motor batteries for Harley- Davidson motorcycles. Motorcycle batteries, and other vehicles or devices that don’t get started every day, have a particular challenge in that as they sit unused over time, they lose their charge.
A standard-issue lead-acid battery will get to a point about 14 days out where it won’t be able to turn over and start a big Harley, while a lithium-ion battery on the other hand, will hold a full charge for up to a year, recharge (or cycle) more than 7,000 times and be viable for more than 20 years.
Battery power is an imperative in virtually every aspect of modern life, from phones and watches to radio controlled devices, to cars to military-grade systems. Electric powered concept cars have been in development for decades, but it’s always been the battery where the biggest challenges lie. Power, range, weight, safety, infrastructure for recharging and clean disposal have always presented the biggest questions for manufacturers.
A native of Australia, Barber comes from both a technology and business background and along with his wife, Suzanna, teamed up with President Lee Arrowood, to take over Oakridge about two and a half years ago after seeing first- hand the potential the Brevard-based manufacturer possessed.
Lithium-ion batteries are a much more sustainable power solution as well. Because they last longer, they don’t need to be replaced, or disposed of, as often. Also, the chemicals in the batteries are far easier to dispose of and less damaging to the environment.
“They are completely recyclable,” Arrowood says. “Lithium salt is non-toxic and naturally occurring in the environment.”
Oakridge Global Energy Solutions was first incorporated in 1986 and headed in large part by battery and electronics pioneer John Bates. The company is the only spinoff of the famed Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and Barber and his management team spotted the marketable potential of the products they could produce based on that pedigree almost immediately.
It may come as a surprise to many who believe America has already outsourced every bit of technological manufacturing to China, but Oakridge truly embraces the Made in America mission, producing all of its extremely high-quality batteries in its 70,000 square-foot Palm Bay facility. It is the only sizable producer of lithium-ion batteries in the United States with a staff of about 52 that the company is looking to expand to almost twice that size with a full second shift. Its main competition comes from China, but they don’t really think of China as competition.
￼￼“Chinese-made batteries have a failure rate of between 30 and 35 percent,” Arrowood said while conducting a tour of the deceivingly large facility. “Our failure rate is less than one percent.”
And the company is continually working to drive that fail rate even further down.
GROWING TO MEET DEMAND
The Barbers take what Steve Barber describes as an old fashioned “19th-century” approach to business and investment. The Oakridge effort is financed, for example, through Precept Fund Management, a private, family-owned investment house; a fact that translates to mean the company’s operation and growth are funded not by outside investments or venture capital, but using their own resources.
This allows Barber to maintain a controlling interest in the company and enable the management to optimize their corporate strategy with a flexibility they wouldn’t otherwise have available to them.
They’ve invested more than $40 million in the facility so far, custom designing their manufacturing operations with a combination of skilled labor and robotic automation that allows them to scale and customize their shop floors according to whatever specifications their customers require.
One thing that strikes visitors when they visit Oakridge is how comfortable the environment is. It is not what you typically envision as a manufacturing environment. The floors look like what you might see in a typical office environment rather than, say, a 1970s General Motors plant. The floors are carpeted; workers are dressed in corporate casual attire and the machinery – dry rooms, battery stackers, cutters, and even massive electron microscopes – run in an incredibly clean way.
Oakridge is a welcoming environment. Barber smiles and shakes hands with all of his employees calling them by name as he walks through the building. His staff all seem genuinely happy to be there.
Barber is a big supporter of “onshoring;” maintaining and/or bringing back manufacturing to U.S. shores. If you ask him directly, his explanation will dive deeply into his financial expertise and understanding of international economics. What it really boils down to is the fact that he believes if they do the right things right, a company like Oakridge can certainly produce a technological product like lithium-ion batteries domestically that are better
quality, more reliable, safer, cleaner and cost competitive to any produced anywhere in the world.
Oakridge is certainly proving that belief right with plans for expansion on the table and more interested customers than they can service at the moment.
“It’s a luxurious problem,” Barber says, “to have more customers than your production capability.”
To solve that problem, Oakridge is working on expansion projects along the Space Coast Tech Corridor that include moving into existing facilities in the area and building new facilities on three adjoining properties, each more than 20 acres, in Palm Bay. The vision is for the Oakridge building to become the Oakridge campus. This is no little battery company. They are already an industry leader and are looking to the future for more.♦