Philadelphia Scientific triumphed in the Product Innovation and Design category at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2022. The editorial team paid a visit to the company’s Bolton home to find out more.
One only has to look at the meteoric rise in electric vehicles to know the role that humble batteries are playing in our daily lives and in wider society. However, this is certainly not something you have to tell the team at Philadelphia Scientific. From battery handling and monitoring to watering and cleaning, the manufacturer provides a plethora of advanced technology solutions to the industrial battery industry.
The company specialises in the research, design, development and manufacturing of products for motive power, standby and automotive batteries, in addition to tools that maximise battery performance. Philadelphia Scientific serves a global marketplace from multiple locations around the world and are holders of an extensive patent inventory.
On arrival we were greeted by the wonderfully named Andy Napoleon- Hill, Philadelphia’s Sales and Marketing Manager, who showed us into the company’s Bolton factory, a former cotton mill. “We know if batteries are maintained properly and used as they’re supposed to be, then they perform better and last longer, and we’ve been developing and manufacturing products that make that happen for nearly 40 years,” he said. “Typically, customers using our technologies tend to see an improvement in battery performance of around 25- 40%.”
It just got interesting!
Once settled in, the company’s Duncan Jones introduced himself, sporting a full cast on his leg and accompanying walking stick (the result of a baseball injury). “It’s healing pretty well considering it only happened five weeks ago,” he told us optimistically. When he’s not trying to steal second base, Duncan is Philadelphia’s Founder and Managing Director, heading up the company during what has become a fascinating and exciting period.
Duncan explained that simply, batteries have traditionally been thought of as boring; a necessary set of products and technologies for many industries, but not one that elicited any kind of interest or passion from those that had to deal with them.
However, in the current climate, with the push towards renewables and energy reduction, all of a sudden, it’s a technology that people are becoming more familiar with. For example, there has been a recent push from industry towards lithium batteries, as they can boast fantastic energy density and can be charged very quickly. The drawback is that they are expensive and hard to recycle.
“People have therefore, been looking for alternative methods of making traditional lead acid batteries perform better, as they are far more recyclable,” said Duncan. “We’ve been involved with this type of technology for a long time and our products help make those batteries applicable to new markets.”
In addition, Duncan explained that nowadays consumers expect that high value products are also intelligent e.g., the average washing machine now comes with an app and a new car will have certain digital control systems. “Likewise, when people buy a battery, they expect it to have digital capabilities too. That’s been very useful for us as we make tools that make that possible.”
One such tool is Philadelphia’s online data portal, batterymanagement.net. This online hub takes all of the data captured and uploaded by Philadelphia’s range of products, such as the iBOS and eGO!, and translates it into easy-to-understand information and reports.
These data-charged reports, provide managers with the hard facts to run their battery rooms, save resources, verify savings and assure continued efficiencies into the future.
The devil is in the data and batteries and chargers that service a fleet of forklift trucks, for example, comprise a technology investment possessing a huge amount of data that can be analysed and compared to reveal even more powerful ways to cut costs on all fronts.
Philadelphia Scientific has eight product categories with thousands of different variants designed for specific customers, regions or uses. “We try and pre-manufacture as many of the sub-assemblies as we can,” said Andy. “However, because we manufacture regional or customer specific products, we can’t manufacture to stock.
“Therefore, we try and work with local suppliers as much as we can. This means that for any components that we use, we have a reliable source and supply chain to make sure we can meet the demand of our manufacturing processes and keep everything all in one place.”
A recipe for success
Andy believes that the ‘everything inhouse’ mantra was a key factor behind Philadelphia Scientific’s victory in the Product Innovation and Design category at last year’s TMMX Awards.
He said: “We essentially run an end-to-end closed loop manufacturing process, from working with our customers and industry to establish the concept, and bringing it in-house to our R&D team (who we’ve invested heavily in). We believe that’s a really strong area for growth.
“We can take a product from design all the way through to manufacturing and sales, and then loop it back into the process. So, if anything needs to be tweaked or improved, we have that capability and are small and agile enough to carry it out quickly – having a small, bespoke team that can take an idea from concept in month one to shop floor in month six, is something that can’t be achieved anywhere else.”
Duncan added that a key element to innovation and design is firstly establishing that there is a target market. “I see over and over again, particularly in our industry, products being developed that nobody asked for. Until you’ve figured out that there’s a need for the product, don’t start that journey,” he said. He also stressed the importance of understanding value.
The industrial world doesn’t have an ego, so a product isn’t going to be designed for style. Therefore, value and ROI is crucial, and if you don’t have those two key elements the product won’t be successful. A third, and equally key element, is ownership; having someone that is responsible for the product. When a Philadelphia design engineer develops a product, they become the owner and get a commission on sales, now and in the future.
“That gets them engaged and makes them eager to ensure the product gets to market and stays valid, rather than just staying in development. I think that’s quite unique in the R&D world.” Duncan added.
Like all manufacturers, Philadelphia Scientific has had to react and adapt to a number of different issues over recent years. One that is ongoing is the drive towards sustainability and increased efficiency. It’s here that the company is embracing digital technology via the use of robotics to take over mundane worker tasks.
It is also decreasing waste by replacing all paper-based instructions with dynamic QR codes that can be updated remotely. “Some of our challenges are fundamentally connected to resistance to change,” Duncan added. “Many traditional customers around the world have managed to get by for the last 20 years without digital technology in their batteries, and so often question why they need it now. Getting them to change that mindset is difficult.
“And then from an employer perspective in manufacturing, it’s also a challenge to eliminate the fear that robotics and digital technologies are going to replace people. On the contrary, they’re there to make workers’ lives more efficient, and that way we can sustain the growth in the business and make workers’ jobs more valuable.”
Since the company purchased its current building, which dates back to 1888, it has been renovated and insulated, has had low loss glass installed as well as a digital heating control system, all of which help reduce the building’s impact on the environment.
In addition, six half kilowatt solar arrays have been installed on the outside of the building which are used for charging EVs and have been active for the last year. The next stage will be the installation of a 50kW array which will run the entire length of the building, with the objective of taking Philadelphia’s entire manufacturing off grid.
Andy added that the company has experienced slight knock-on effects from the COVID pandemic and over the past two years, have had to increase component stock by 50% to ensure customer demands are met.
“The situation is improving slightly,” Andy continued. “We are seeing an ease in the supply chain and it’s getting easier to source the microchips and silicon-based modules that we use in our components, for example.“
To mitigate this challenge and help secure the supply chain and the process of how we go to market, we redesigned some of our products to have a more uniform fit in some components. That means if we have a rush on a certain product, we have the components already in-house and in stock, enabling us to meet customer demand as quickly as possible.”
What does the future look like?
Duncan concluded that, like it or not, batteries are going to be an essential part of everyone’s decarbonisation strategy. “What we want to do is make sure that the batteries that are out there perform as well as they can.
“We want to have our monitoring technology on every industrial battery. From an environmental perspective, that’s going to help reduce the number of batteries that are needed and help them last longer. And obviously, from a manufacturing perspective, that means more products being made here, which will mean more jobs and more innovation.
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