North Logan, Utah
Electric power systems for aviation
Electric Power Systems (EP Systems) is angling to commercialize power systems for electric propulsion in aircraft.
Before the company was founded in 2016, the company's team focused on the automotive market as employees of International Rectifier. "We had an opportunity in 2016 after Infineon and International Rectifier merged to essentially take the team and have it be private," says Millecam, who co-founded the company with CSO Randy Dunn. "We went from R&D to product."
Subsequent to the spinoff, EP Systems pivoted to electric aviation when it worked with NASA on the X-57 Maxwell. "That was a very challenging project where we had to drastically improve the energy density and the safety of lithium-ion battery technology to hit the demands of electric propulsion," says Millecam.
EP Systems decreased the packaging overhead of the X-57's power system by a factor of nearly four -- from 134 percent to 34 percent. "Once we crossed that technological hurdle, we really just had the entire industry come to us and ask for a number of developments that were primarily custom over the last couple of years," says Millecam.
After focusing on electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, the company looked to scale in a broader market with standardized products. "We were tailoring that technology for the leaders in aerospace," says Millecam. "We said, 'Instead of enabling just a few key players, how do we enable the entire industry?'"
Boeing invested in the company in 2019 and helped catalyze the shift. "We were challenged by Boeing to say, 'How do you create more commonality in your products?'" says Millecam. "Instead of having a unique pack for the airframe, we could have commonality, where we can reduce the costs and get things to scale much easier."
The strategy led to the development of the EPiC Power System that's slated for FAA certification in 2023. "It's really emerged as the benchmark electric propulsion battery for this emerging market," says Millecam. "You can pick modular building blocks, but then tailor them in a way that's unique to an aircraft. That has proven to be a huge market success, and that's taken us to where we're focused on certification -- to get that done next year -- and also scaling and how we get to gigawatt-hour levels."
Beyond NASA and Boeing, EP Systems' customers include Embraer, Bell, Archer, and Hyundai. "We have really just a breadth of customers across the entire advanced air mobility space," says Millecam. "We see missions and use cases jumping up all over the place, from seagliders that are using wing-in-ground effect to logistics missions."
EP Systems moved into a 16,000-square-foot facility in 2020. The company can make about four megawatt-hours of prototype systems a year in the current space, but will need a second facility of about the same size to house the pilot manufacturing line that Millecam expects to have an annual capacity of 16 megawatt-hours with a single shift.
"Really, the intent of the pilot line is to further enhance our automation capabilities so that we can then scale to gigawatt-hour levels," he says. "We're projecting that we'll be at gigawatt-hours of capacity by 2025."
The State of Utah is incentivizing EP Systems -- which has roughly doubled in size most years of its existence -- as it moves towards these milestones. "We received a $69 million tax incentive package to scale our operations in the state over the coming years," says Millecam. "We anticipate growing our footprint here in Utah from about 140 employees that we have now to over 3,000 employees here."
The manufacturing strategy is to build energy storage and high-voltage power distribution in-house and foster partnerships with outside suppliers as production scales. Millecam describes it as a massive task -- and an industry first.
"We haven't set up a supply chain with the quality and transparency standards ever of this scale for aviation," he explains. "We have legacy aerospace suppliers that are very, very good at what they do. How do they either get their volumes up or their costs down? Or we start to encourage new entrants into this space, where we help lift them up in their quality systems and their transparency and inspections, all those things that are needed to supply aero-grade parts or components to our systems."
"Every major revolution in aerospace has been preceded by a step change in the technology for propulsion," adds Millecam. "It goes back to the Wright brothers."
Challenges: Scaling manufacturing, with an emphasis on automation. "Even though we have to scale, we have to do it responsibly, without sacrificing quality or safety," says Millecam.
He adds, "Aerospace is known for skilled operators, skilled quality engineers, robust processes, and then a lot of inspection and a lot of data gathering as you build each one of these craftsman products. We can't create that many people in the world to get to the scale or get to the cost point that we need."
Opportunities: In the long run, making aviation cost-competitive with ground transportation. "Part of our strategy is to leverage our technology and our scale to really overcome the adoption barriers," says Millecam.
By balancing the "competing values" of energy density and cost, EP Systems can bring a more affordable flight model to all kinds of aircraft, he notes. "We're actually seeing a 40 to 45 percent cost reduction in comparison to the combustion engine that's flying them today. That actually starts to become a threshold where it opens up spaces where you can take a smaller passenger aircraft on, say, a 100- or 150-nautical mile mission and it starts to become competitive with ground-based transportation solutions -- and the great news is it's at two to three times the speed of the ground-based solution."
The shift to electric also opens up opportunities in the design realm. "When you start to look at electric propulsion as really being the next disruptive technology, what's exciting about it is it completely opens up the design space for aircraft," says Millecam. "We can actually put propulsors anywhere we want, and the complexity now actually starts to come in the power management and the controls architecture, which is what we're really focused on. Now you can start to design aircraft that were not economical in the past."
Needs: Workforce development. With a plan to scale to thousands of employees in the long term, EP Systems needs a robust talent pipeline.
"We're going to have to develop people as they go along," says Millecam. "We've really started to find a lot of success on how we teach people, how we put them in challenging roles, how we put mentorship around them, how we put education systems around them with some of our university partners as well as our technical school partners. It's really yielded just a fantastic result. I am really, really encouraged by this upcoming generation that is just starting careers in aerospace. . . . The energy, the innovation that they're bringing is really quite inspiring."