Gigafactory ambitions will not stand in the way of AMTE Power keeping its Thurso connection
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Lithium-ion battery cells have been manufactured in Caithness since the 1990s, but when AMTE Power bought its Thurso factory in 2013, it heralded the beginning of an ambitious new era.
From almost zero, the Thurso factory now employs around 45 staff, though on any one day the head count at Thurso could be larger with regular visits from colleagues based at AMTE’s head office.
AMTE was established with the aim of finding new markets as the lithium-ion sector began looking beyond its established client base.
“In the old days consumer electronics such as laptops and mobiles were the dominant market,” chief executive Kevin Brundish said.
“Our view was that there was going to be a big shift to supporting big volume vehicle manufacturers.
“We saw an opportunity for more specialised but still substantial markets within the automotive market such as high performance vehicles, buses and commercial. That’s why we have slightly different products to what everyone else has, but we do make those more conventional products as well.”
It is an area which AMTE is already enjoying success in.
AMTE recently announced a new partnership that includes BMW, BP and UK low carbon technology specialist Sprint Power, to develop ultra-fast charging systems for electric vehicles. The aim is to cut the best charging time from 22 minutes for a 10-80 per cent charge to achieving an 80 per cent charge in just 12 minutes.
The success is such that AMTE, which is also developing a partnership in Australia, is set to outgrow its Thurso factory with plans for a gigafactory elsewhere in the UK. However, Thurso will remain important to the business and is continuing to expand.
“It will not be the site for our bigger expansion because you are getting on for a million square feet, but Thurso is very much in our plans,” Mr Brundish said.
“There are more specialised products, including one aimed at oil and gas, that we intend to manufacture in volume in the plant in Thurso.”
Having the experienced workforce and established facility which Thurso provides had helped give AMTE an advantage over its competitors, Mr Brundish acknowledged, and it was very much the heart of the business.
“One of the differentials we have, and a significant one, is that we already have that production plant,” he said.
“A lot of people who are trying to bring new products to market are in a lab. They might have some smart IP (intellectual property), but they have no way to convert that into products.”
While the UK has long been a leader in innovation in this sector, when it comes to the manufacturing, businesses have often looked overseas, but this was not a step AMTE have considered.
“We started some time ago with a view that we would bring that manufacturing back to the UK and, at the time, we were quite a lonely voice,” Mr Brundish said.
“We do believe we are ahead of the game in some of the technologies we are embedding into the products we are bringing to market, so it is a very exciting time for us.
“Expansion is continuing and we are bringing new people into the Thurso region. Having Thurso helping us continue to innovate and bring new products to market is going to be important for our future.”
However, although the expansion in Thurso is continuing, Mr Brundish anticipates the expansion in terms of staff numbers will be in tens of people rather than larger numbers as the focus will be on automation to achieve the quality control and production speed required, but potential links with other local businesses and industries mean they too could benefit from AMTE’s Thurso presence.
Another area the company is looking at is the energy sector with products aimed at both the the oil and gas and renewables sectors, which are also factors in favour of a continued Caithness presence.
“One of the great things about Scotland is that it already has a lot of low carbon, so from that point of view it’s wonderful to be in Scotland and, of course, there are a lot of renewable energy links in the Caithness area,” Mr Brundish said.
“That’s another reason why, in the longer term, we think that location still has a lot to offer. Some really advanced stuff has been happening in that space up in Thurso.”