LORDSTOWN — There are 14,000 beams that form the massive steel structure of Ultium Cells LLC’s 2.8 million-square-foot battery-cell manufacturing plant here.
On Friday, ironworkers with Local 207 in Boardman — who’ve been erecting the skeleton for months — hoisted and set the last piece of structural steel into place in a “topping out” ceremony, marking a significant milestone in the $2.3 billion plant.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” said Curtis Mitchell of Austintown, a member of Local 207 and of the raising crew that lifted the beam adorned with a small evergreen tree into its final resting place.
A “topping off” ceremony is a rite among builders that goes back many, many years. Its origins, however, are murky.
Before it, Local 207 members and employees of Barton Malow, the Michigan-based general contractor for the project, signed the beam.
“This is a big moment. Literally a year ago, we had a bar napkin. We had no drawings, no nothing. We had some schematics, like two sheets,” said John Hanmer, project management with Barton Malow. “To see us go from there to today; we were standing in a 6-foot tall bush of prickers a year ago. It is an amazing amount of work that has gone in since April.”
Ultium Cells LLC is a joint venture between General Motors and South Korea’s LG Chem to mass produce battery cells that will power several electric GM models.
Prepartion of the 158-acre site adjacent to GM’s former automaking plant began in April with concrete footings poured in May. Steel construction started in July.
“So eight months,” said Mathew Cook of Champion, foreman with Barton Malow and member of Local 207. “It’s the last main structure of the building, last structural member … We’ve worked six days a week for eight months pretty much. I appreciate all of these guys and everything they did through the weather, the snow, the rain, everything, COVID.”
THE PLANT / STAFF
The project ended 2020 with about 500 construction workers on site. Now, that numbers about 650 and is expected to rise to 1,000 when it comes time to process equipment installation sometime in the middle of this year.
The building already is partially covered with its outer skin. It’s expected it will be substantially complete by the end of 2021 with early phase production in early 2022, which lines up with GM’s plans to start, in earnest, electrification of its fleet.
“It’s really concurrent construction, so we have the steel construction, the siding and the roofing all going on outside of the building along with things such as sanitary sewer and water,” said Tom Gallagher, plant director. “Inside the property we are pouring concrete, working on the decking. Also, the mechanical and electrical components are going in as well.”
The mixing and coating process equipment in the electrode area of the plant is among the first equipment to arrive. Then cell assembly and formation will arrive. Some installation work will still be happening in early phase production.
“This is really all about having an aggressive timeline and coming to market as quickly as we can with the highest quality product,” Gallagher said. “So we’re trying to have that balance of coming to market quickly and maintaining the ability to launch with the appropriate volume and timeline.”
Gallagher said a team of about 30 newly hired employees will start in March as part of a launch team. They’ll work in a variety of functions, including engineering, maintenance, quality and production.
They’ll undergo a two-week orientation at LG Energy Solution’s battery plant in Michigan, Gallagher said. LG Energy Solutions is a subsidiary of LG Chem.
About 10 people were already on board.
More than 500,000 hours have been devoted to develop the facility so far, including making and installing the steel structure. The building’s framework allows for an open floor plan environment, with a main corridor spanning the width of the building interior and creating a connection point across the operation. The plant will equal the size of 30 football fields and will have annual capacity of more than 30 gigawatt hours with room to expand.
Gallagher tamped down the notion of future plant growth Friday, saying the focus now is on a successful launch.
“Opportunities to grow are not what we are currently working on or focused on,” he said. “It’s delivering what we can here on time at the budgeted cost at the quality level we need to be successful.”
There are, however, scenarios to expand or modify as cell designs change, “but right now our focus is delivering the current chemistry, which is critically important to GM’s electric future and leveraging the technology of LG Energy Solutions.”