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F-150 Lightning production restart may drag as Ford battery supplier is wary of industrial espionage

The F-150 Lightning production restart may be delayed (image: Ford)
The F-150 Lightning production restart may be delayed (image: Ford)
The F-150 Lightning battery maker reportedly insists that the fire which forced Ford to halt production has been a one-off incident and not an inherent flaw in the manufacturing process that would require deeper investigation. SK On is increasingly worried that giving Ford more access to its battery technology may result in poaching it and go against the Korean government's trade secret guidelines for its EV industry.

An internal bickering between Ford and its F-150 Lightning battery supplier threatens to delay the restart of the popular electric truck's production as SK On is still reluctant to give full access to its cell technology and manufacturing process. It reportedly insists that the F-150 Lightning that caught on fire while parked in a quality control lot was a one-off incident and not an eventual flaw in the manufacturing process that Ford would like to investigate before it gives the green light for the production restart.

According to local media, Ford has dispatched its own team of battery researchers to meet with SK On in Korea, while it intends to send equipment installation engineers from its Blue Oval SK joint venture in the US there in a few weeks as well. "Manpower related to the Ford EV battery production line at the SK On Georgia plant recently moved to the local area. The reason why we disclosed the situation in detail is that we are dissatisfied with not being able to share information on battery supply and production," tipped Ford insiders.

It is not the first time when SK On has expressed its worries that giving Ford deeper access to its battery technology and production process via the Blue Oval JV may result in poaching them in a way that Ford starts its own cell manufacturing. Back in October, it expressed its reservations as follows:

Ford has a history of requesting to share battery technology-related information while discussing the operation of Blue Oval SK with SK On... The industry analyzes that Ford is moving with its own battery production in mind. As the transition to electric vehicles accelerates, battery expansion and investment are continuing, the number of manpower who can skillfully prepare and operate battery lines in the field is limited. In Tennessee, where the Blue Oval SK plant will be built, a separate pilot line and facility for battery R&D will be prepared. The on-site manpower seems to be a strategy to increase the skill level through SK On and its partners.

SK On has no choice but to give battery and equipment engineers from Ford at least some access in what will be the biggest single investment in made-in-US batteries for electric vehicles so far, to the tune of more than US$11 billion in factories and equipment alone.

The Korean company is reportedly wary that the F-150 Lightning battery fire incident may be used by Ford as a pretext to gain deeper knowledge about its battery technology and is apparently trying to limit its access. While Ford and SK On are playing the blame game, the F-150 Lightning production restart hinges on a successful investigation of what caused the spontaneous combustion of the electric pickup.

Last year, Ford's CEO Jim Farley made a trip to Korea and reportedly "protested that the yield did not meet expectations, and requested that SK On's uncooperative attitude be resolved... They expressed their discomfort when key figures were absent," say sources privy to the talks. The Korean government, however, has designated EV battery-making technology and high-nickel cathode materials of the type that go into the F-150 Lightning pack as trade secrets on a national security level under the Domestic Industrial Technology Protection Act.

This is why SK On is not the only Korean battery giant playing hard to get with its EV battery technology, as last year Samsung outright rejected a budding partnership with Rivian over US battery plants precisely on  the same industrial espionage ground. Since "Blue Oval SK will become a new test bed for the relationship" with SK On, Ford is reportedly looking for alternatives among other local battery makers. Recently, Ford announced a partnership with the world's largest battery maker CATL that succeeds in avoiding the federal subsidy restrictions on Chinese tech by retaining whole ownership of the factory and the type of access to the production process that SK On is still trying to avoid.

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> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > News > News Archive > Newsarchive 2023 02 > F-150 Lightning production restart may drag as Ford battery supplier is wary of industrial espionage
Daniel Zlatev, 2023-02-21 (Update: 2023-02-21)