Panasonic, TMCC unveil advanced manufacturing center in Reno

TMCC advanced manufacturing professor Nathan Lower demonstrates instructional equipment at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center.

TMCC advanced manufacturing professor Nathan Lower demonstrates instructional equipment at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center.
Rob Sabo/NNBW

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66 lithium-ion battery cells per second. 5.5 million per day. 2 billion per year.

That’s the annual production output of Panasonic Energy North America’s lithium battery manufacturing lines at the Tesla Gigafactory at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, which makes it the largest lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility in the world, said Allan Swan, PENA’s North American president.

Panasonic currently produces 38 gigawatts of lithium batteries annually in Northern Nevada, Swan said, and the company’s employment is nearing 4,500. Plans to increase Gigafactory Nevada’s battery production between 26 and 79 percent by 2030 places even more emphasis on skilled workers to accommodate PENA’s years-long ramp up.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center on East Plumb Lane, a collaboration between Panasonic Energy and Truckee Meadows Community College, provides a pathway for both people coming out of high school and older workers to upskill in advanced manufacturing, robotics, production engineering and automation. The technology facility last week celebrated its grand opening, though it’s already seen a class of 76 students pass through its doors with another 11 registered in late March. Registration for the summer session remains open.

Creation of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center stems in large part from Panasonic’s need for increased headcount, Swan told NNBW during an interview in one of the facility's classrooms.

“In this part of the world, there aren’t a lot of people with industrial backgrounds – it’s not like there were former automotive makers (operating) here,” Swan said. “But one of the things the Japanese are really good at is they are very diligent in how they train and what they train.

“When we first opened, we needed to start a training program because of the number of employees coming in with no industrial background,” he added. “We put together a training program, and it worked really well – two things the people in this region have in abundance are energy and enthusiasm. That’s kind of what we needed.”

Employment at Panasonic Energy’s Northern Nevada operations spiked rapidly – from almost zero to nearly 4,000 in a two-year span, Swan said. Many of the company’s initial hires were able to get promoted earlier than normal in their career paths, and today some employees who started out as entry-level materials handlers are now managing teams of employees on the battery production lines, he added.

“We love being able to promote people and constantly give them opportunities,” Swan said. “Our slogan is, ‘You can be whoever you want to be.’ Our job is to create the environment, and their job is to tell us what they want to be. That is what Panasonic is about. We have a real focus on our contribution to society and really focus on supporting the communities we are in.”

As the facility’s production output grew, however, Swan quickly found himself in a quandary. Production thresholds of 15, 20, 25 and more gigawatts required additional manufacturing equipment – and tremendous capital expenditure.

“I had to go to the board and ask them for billions of dollars to bring in new equipment, and they would say, ‘Where are you going to get the workers?’” Swan said.

Those high-level board room meetings eventually led to a discussion over breakfast at Stone House Cafe with Truckee Meadows Community College President Karin Hilgersom where Swan laid out his dilemma to the community college leader.

“We just brainstormed and talked about their trouble spots and what we could provide,” Hilgersom said. “The technology education center is almost like a one-stop manufacturing training shop. When Panasonic expands and adds more manufacturing lines, they will be ready and continue to have the number of employees they need.”

Added Swan: “If we couldn’t get enough people, I couldn’t ask the board for the billions I needed to get the equipment. That’s how this whole thing got started.”

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center benefitted from $1.6 million in grant funding from the Governor's Office of Economic Development. Industrial Realty Group of Los Angeles owns the building and spent much of the last two years transforming the outdated building that formerly housed central operations for AT&T into a state-of-the-art technology center.

In addition to the four main areas of study at the technology center, students also learn how to be comfortable working alongside fast-moving robotics on the highly automated battery production lines.

“That’s what they will be taught here, and if they feel more comfortable in the work environment they can go on and do an amazing job,” Swan said. “Our biggest attrition time is the first few months, when they aren’t comfortable in the setting they are working in because there is a lot of automation, robotic arms moving, noise and lights going off.”

In addition to its operations at Gigafactory Nevada, Panasonic Energy North America is adding a second battery production facility in De Soto, Kansas. That 4 million-square-foot facility is expected to come online in 2025 and produce an additional 30 gigawatts of lithium-ion batteries annually when it reaches full production capacity.

Both facilities combined are nowhere near the 200 total gigawatts needed by 2030, Swan noted.

“I have to basically triple production in six years,” he said. “Either I have to build more factories, or expand the factories we already have – and clearly, expanding is a much easier play.

“Tapping into additional resources in the greater Northern Nevada community works, and I could easily add another 20 or 40 gigawatts (of battery production) here,” Swan added. “We can either take existing degree-educated students and bring them in at a very high level as engineers, or we can take people that maybe didn’t enjoy school so much, or their academic career didn’t go so far, and give them another opportunity to complete their academic career, which we will support, and give them a good job with good pay and benefits at the same time.”

All classes taken at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center can lead to several different academic paths, Hilgersom noted.

“It’s very stackable,” she said. “A student can start with one course and keep adding on courses and stack up to a certificate or a two-year degree.”


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