Long ideas and solutions are not the result of a shared business purpose alone, but also of a shared vision. The case study of Flash Battery and Benevelli.
It has become quite clear that we are living in a globalised society in this age and time (and not just due to the pandemic). It is also – and fortunately – a society that is more aware of its own ethical and moral responsibilities. Bearing that in mind, it is wrong to think that in the coming years we can continue to conduct business in an isolated way.
Strategies need to be reshaped and this may include forming alliances between companies. Cases in point are Flash Battery and Benevelli, two companies that have chosen to travel together the path of electrification within agricultural technology, an area where the case study of telescopic handlers is of great relevance. In the following pages, we will be analysing trends and offering the vision of these two enterprises through the words of Marco Righi, CEO of Flash Battery, and Alessandro Benevelli, Chief Commercial Officer of Benevelli.
Alessandro Benevelli, Chief Commercial Officer of Benevelli, ushers us into the agricultural world and explains the primary challenges that the companies in this segment are tackling in order achieve electrification of heavy machinery.
Access: What are the major technical problems that agricultural machinery OEMs are facing today in the shift to electrification?
Alessandro Benevelli: The problems are multiple and diverse. For example, well-established manufacturers are starting from their existing range of internal combustion engine-powered machines, which are already tried and tested and need to be re-engineered for the new power supply. Re-engineering is necessary and inevitable but comes at a high cost: the layout of the machines has to be re-designed and so do the production lines. It’s not simply about substituting a component with another one. The entire approach has to be re-calibrated, from design to production. For example, in many machines the frames have to be brought up to date because instead of accommodating an engine in a specific location of the machine, they will be housing battery packs that, due to weight and centre-of-gravity optimisation requirements, might have to be arranged along the entire length of the machine.
Access: What is the preferred approach right now? Full-electric or hybrid?
Alessandro Benevelli: There’s more than one answer to this question. Like in all things, the choice hinges on a few parameters. In the specific case, OEMs are going Full Electric for machines with a gross weight of up to 3,500 kg and Hybrid for machines with gross weights higher than that. The choice depends both on the machine weight that has to be moved and on the work cycle the machine has to perform.
Access: What are your solutions to these problems, both technically speaking and in terms of design consultancy?
Alessandro Benevelli: Our approach has to necessarily be in line with the needs of our OEM customers, which usually demand complete and turnkey solutions (to the extent possible) for the powertrains of their machines. And this, in fact is the extra value we offer: we respond by supporting the customer’s project with a 360-degree view, sharing solutions that fully meet the requirements right from the start. Experience and the daily work carried out together with Flash Battery are an added boost for the project in terms of the choice of components and their implementation on the customer’s machine.
Access: What do you demand of a battery manufacturer like Flash Battery?
Alessandro Benevelli: Support and collaboration. Working in synergy with Flash Battery means increasing the added value we can deliver to our customers to support their project. With Flash Battery, we study and decide on the best choice for the customer, from the operating voltage of the machines all the way to shared remote monitoring systems.
Marco Righi, CEO of Flash Battery, explains the company strategy they have put in place to support their partners. The strategy has led the company to grow exponentially since 2014: revenue went from €2 to €14 million and is set to exceed the €30 million threshold in the 2022-2024 two-year period with the support of its more than 60 employees and widespread presence in over 54 countries around the world.
Access: How does Flash Battery respond to the demands of a company like Benevelli?
Marco Righi: When working with our customers, we always start off with an accurate analysis of their needs. The goal is to achieve the perfect integration of these needs into a final result that not only enables our batteries to work under the best possible conditions but also delivers added value in terms of performance, range and complete elimination of the machine’s maintenance costs. By focusing on the industrial market (construction machines, cranes, aerial platforms, agricultural machines, LGVs and AGVs), we have been able to work alongside various European manufacturers, making customised batteries according to the machine’s space and size, and offering ad hoc voltage and capacity for the machine’s working requirements. The short supply chain of the suppliers we work with and the European partnerships we have forged with the main electrification specialists mean we can support every single manufacturer of machines and vehicles in this transition towards electric in complete safety. Safe in the support and added value that a “large European team” can provide.
Access: What challenges did you have to overcome to meet Benevelli’s application requirements?
Marco Righi: Interfacing correctly with the inverter is the most delicate part, regardless of the project and partner. Flash Battery’s proprietary communication protocol is currently compatible and integrated with the most popular inverters in the market today. In addition, when we approach a new project, the goal is to find a level of integration between our systems and our partner’s system such that the costs of the solution can be contained without affecting its efficiency. To reach this goal, the synergy between the two technical departments has to be perfect, just like our respective products.
The other challenge we faced together with Benevelli was of a commercial nature, in other words, we had to find the ideal alliance between our companies in order to provide an integrated system also from the service point of view, for every single application.
Access: Why is the synergy between your companies so important?
Alessandro Benevelli: Benevelli and Flash Battery supply essential components for an electric vehicle; therefore, selecting a battery based on the motor and vice versa is important, in order to avoid performance issues.
Marco Righi: Our collaboration is a guarantee for customers, who will never see us passing the buck or playing the blame game. Instead, what they will see are two technical departments pooling their resources to find and offer smart and functional solutions.
Access: The race to electrification will lead to the progressive transformation of the layout of agricultural machinery. Will the autonomous car and robotisation trends also be driving this transformation?
Alessandro Benevelli: Yes, absolutely. Electrification is not a fad and is not fated to remain a trend. Electric machines and vehicles will be the norm in the future, in agriculture as well as other industries. We are in a transition phase where OEMs have responded to the initial electrification demand by adapting their existing machines and models; at the same time, everyone is investing huge resources in design, opening specialty divisions whose only objective is to design the electric machines of the future from square one, starting from a blank piece of paper. This is the best choice, in my opinion; just take a look of what happened in the automotive industry. Cars like the Teslas, which are designed to be fully electric from the start, deliver more range and performance than car models initially designed with an internal combustion engine and then re-engineered.
Like I mentioned already, electrification is unavoidable. Autonomous driving technology and robotisation will further drive the process. In the agricultural segment, for example, electrification and autonomous driving go hand in hand. In fact, thanks to the efficiency and precision of electrical systems, many machines have been made “autonomous”, increasing their efficiency and cutting down operating costs. In the future, the layout of the machines might be very different from what it is now. The dimensions of the components will definitely change and there will be a reduction of the tare weight and an optimal distribution of weights.
Marco Righi: New machine layouts are likely indeed. This is also because of the ongoing evolution of the components, with batteries topping the list. The continuous research of our R&D department (involving about 35% of the team) has increasingly driven it towards solutions that increase the energy density inside its LFP lithium battery packs, taking it from 134 Wh/L to 207 Wh/L in just three years. This results in greater energy density in a smaller size, while maintaining the high safety levels which we guarantee to every one of the over 10,000 Flash Battery batteries in use around the world.
Making a customised battery pack tailored to the customer means understanding the needs of the industrial machinery or electric vehicle OEMs and designing ad-hoc solutions appropriate to the specific use. Behind the making of a customised battery, there’s a team of people – over 30 engineers and technicians – who design and make the battery pack by following a well-established industrial in-house process. This includes 8 customisation steps that provide clear actions down to the finest detail, and every department in our company (sales, custom, design and production) works alongside the manufacturer in the development and making of the battery pack.
We can design battery packs with custom shapes for any type of machine and they can now be installed vertically, not just horizontally. Today, Flash Battery offers over 400 different battery packs.
Access: With more and more custom-made components and batteries being produced, where do you stand regarding standardised production as a way to contain costs?
Alessandro Benevelli: Our mantra is: “For every application, the right solution”. It’s a fact that every machine – agricultural or other – has its own peculiarities, requiring dedicated systems. In addition, OEMs will have a tendency to develop their own architecture for the vehicles they want to electrify. This will lead to the spread of different architectures and technologies, each of which will be usable only for a single type of vehicle. And each of which will need our solutions. This may all seem incompatible with the standardisation of our production, but it’s actually not so. At Benevelli, we found the solution by applying the concept of modularity to our products at the level of design and production, through the verticalisation of our in-house mechanical and assembly operations. This enables us to increase our production volumes, cut down costs, and deliver to our customers in shorter time frames while maintaining our customisation capabilities at the highest levels.
Marco Righi: What’s the best battery for my application? This is a common question we get asked when industrial machinery and electric vehicle manufacturers begin to approach an electrification project. Analysing each detail of the product – the type of application, its consumption and size, as well as the spaces, weights, working environment, and mode of use – makes the difference and is crucial in giving birth to the perfect lithium battery for the manufacturer. Sometimes, however, manufacturers have a need to equip the product with varying ranges and this is where modular batteries come into play to meet that need. When we speak of modularity at Flash Battery, we mean a mostly firmware function that makes it possible to install several battery modules in parallel in the same application.
Each module can be configured as a master battery, slave battery, or even as a stand-alone battery. Therefore, modularity brings simplified battery capacity management and high scalability combined, providing added advantages to the supply chain management.
Standardisation of modular systems, which use several parallel battery packs inside the application without distinction (the batteries are standard and of equal size; one is the same as the other), can be a problem at times. With modular batteries more modifications to the vehicle/machine are required. This means the manufacturer has to necessarily find the space in its product to house the standard modules by moving whatever is in the way. When adaptation is an issue due to specific design constraints, choosing a customised battery pack is the best way to go because the geometry of the battery can be “moulded” to fit the machine/vehicle spaces without having to make any design changes.
Access: Many say that lack of suitable infrastructure will stop the race to electrification. What do you think?
Alessandro Benevelli: Infrastructure is undoubtedly lacking, but that’s because we are at the dawn of an epoch-making revolution. The people who are saying there is a lack of infrastructure are right but, at the same time, they are fearmongering because they are basically scared of the changes that will come with electrification. But wasn’t infrastructure missing a century ago when cars began to be mass produced? Weren’t the difficulties in that period in history huge considering the fact that distributing fuel in liquid form then was much more challenging than distributing energy today? I’m certain that infrastructure won’t take long to arrive. Moreover, in the agricultural sector many farmers are already working hard to reach energy self-sufficiency in their farms, for example, by installing wind power systems, solar panels and, even, systems that exploit biomass.
Marco Righi: It is obvious that there is little infrastructure if we look at it from the business-to-consumer, i.e. private level, point of view. If everyone had an electric car today, the current energy distribution system wouldn’t be able to handle the demand. But this is not the reality at the industrial level, where Flash Battery is operating. Companies wanting to electrify their own fleets are equipping themselves with an adequate supply network and charging points. And they are optimising their production processes also on the basis of machine charging times. For machines operating in construction the problem doesn’t exist because building sites can’t operate without electrification. In this transition phase it has become clear that electrification will not arrive in every sector at the same time. The shift will be gradual, giving infrastructure time to catch up.
Access: Connectivity and future developments. You are both currently offering remote monitoring systems with your products (BenConnect and Flash Data Center). How do your solutions work?
Alessandro Benevelli: Remote monitoring is part of that initial integration concept that unites our two companies when designing a single “turnkey” solution for an OEM. Our two systems are able to communicate with each other and relate the data gathered. For example, Flash Data Center gathers the data during battery charging and then sends the data to the BenConnect system every time the machine is turned back on.
Marco Righi: Flash Data Center is a proprietary remote monitoring system that monitors the state of health of each battery on a daily basis. Remote monitoring enables our technicians to analyse the data sets; this is valuable to prevent faults, perform self-diagnostic tests and intervene, if necessary. The automatic alert system notifies the Flash Battery service department of any critical issues, allowing it to take action in real time before any machine downtime occurs.
Access: Let’s talk about telescopic handlers. What are the major problems in electrifying these machines?
Alessandro Benevelli: We are specialising in these machines, which require very powerful, low-voltage motors (low voltage implies fewer risks in terms of machine use and maintenance; that’s why the Machinery Directive imposes fewer safety restrictions, meaning greater design freedom). Hence, we designed special liquid cooled IPM (interior permanent magnet) electric motors: cooling enhances the motor performance (even at low voltage) and makes it possible to meet the performance requirements of these machines. And in September we’ll be launching a new range of motors that can reach 80 kW of power, thereby providing additional strategic and innovative components for the electrification of a new segment of machines.
Marco Righi: Electrifying telescopic handlers is not very different than electrifying any other industrial machine.
The global situation is requiring companies to pay attention to sustainability more and more and the most committed companies in the agricultural market are investing in this direction.
This sector is definitely energy-intensive by nature: when an agricultural machine is electrified, one of the most crucial aspects is providing adequate range and power to the machine and lithium batteries have undoubtedly made it possible to overcome the limitations that hindered the development of the sector.
The fact that the batteries can be created with custom shapes and technical specifications expedites the route to electrification. So we don’t simply make a sale but become a partner to our customer, developing the project through a combined effort.