The forthcoming transition to electrified powertrains is fueling a lot of development in electric motors, which are often overshadowed by batteries. Producing cost-effective motors and assessing China’s role in motor supply and implementation are major challenges facing product designer and manufacturers.

American companies need to be competitive in these areas, according to panelists at the CWIEME Americas conference. The October conference was geared towards the supply chain of electric motors, coil winding, and generators. International competition, particularly in the form of recent electrification moves by the Chinese government, was among the foremost concerns of speakers at the conference.

“What’s going on in China is amazing,” said Manoj Karwa, Vice President at CleanWave Technologies. “If we don’t do electric vehicles, other countries are going to get ahead and we will not be able to compete in the future.”

Competition extends beyond vehicle design. Manufacturing operations are getting more of the spotlight, especially at Tesla, which rapidly ramped up production of its Model 3. Anderson Pacheco, Staff Manufacturing Engineer at Tesla, explained that it took four years to fully integrate manufacturing operations in China.

That cycle was reduced to two years when operations were expanded in Mexico. Now, the Model 3 lines are being revised to streamline operations. Finding knowledgeable production personnel is an important part of the ongoing effort to improve manufacturing operations. 

“Engineers are the new gold,” said Pacheco. “It’s not easy to find people who understand the different types of machines and can put them together. It’s a necessity to integrate all the machine together, and the equipment must be scalable.”

Even motor design and selection are not immune from China’s impact. Panelists noted that materials used in rare-earth permanent magnets come primarily from China. That has some geopolitical impacts as well as economic factors. Many suppliers are using AC (alternating current) induction motors, which don’t have rare-earth materials.

“Every automaker is working to reduce usage of rare-earth motors,” Karwa said. “Around 90% of rare-earth materials for permanent magnets are in China. In 2010, after a dispute with Japan, China stopped shipping rare-earth materials to Japan, which increased prices by 50%. It’s not only an economic matter, consumers demand transparency about where you get materials.”

Tesla chose neodymium rare-earth magnets for the Model 3 motors, though rare-earth materials aren’t used in the motors of the larger Model S. Pacheco noted that Tesla shares the supply-chain concerns detailed by panelists, but the tradeoffs make rare-earth permanent motors a viable technology for that vehicle line.

The automotive industry is the primary driving force behind much of the research in electric motors, but it’s far from the only one. Aerospace startup, Zunum Aero, aims to produce electric-powered aircraft for short routes between smaller cities. These aircraft, which will carry under 100 passengers, can ease flying directly between secondary airports, making it viable to fly on routes that otherwise require a stop in an airline hub.

“For a 10-passenger aircraft, electric power has advantage over fuel when oil is at $60 per barrel,” said Daniel Saban, Chief Engineer at Zunum. “Even if we only serve market up to 500 mi by 2020, we can provide major benefits. We’re looking at getting aircraft into operation between 2020 and 2025 with planes that carry 10 to 50 people.”