17Jan 2017

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of innovation, it was the age of imitation. It was the epoch of the battery, it was the epoch of lithium. It was the season of Japan, it became the season of China. It was the spring of hope for batteries, it was the winter of despair from safety. Charles Dickens will forgive me for contorting his famous novel into a Tale of Two Geographies: China vs. the world, that is in lithium-ion batteries, of course.

The credit goes to Sony for being the first to commercialize the lithium-ion battery in 1991 for use in their handheld video cameras. Twenty five years later, Sony Energy Devices (or SEND), as the business came to be known, was sold to Murata Manufacturing Co. Ltd., epitomizing the massive changes that swept through the lithium-ion battery industry. An icon and a giant in the evolution of lithium-ion batteries, SEND had estimated revenues in 2016 of $1.2B, and its rumored sale price was approximately $150m. What happened?

Several factors came into play as the lithium-ion battery industry grew and matured. As our society turned mobile and demanded portable power sources, demand for rechargeable batteries grew from 3 GWh in 1990 to 58 GWh in 2015, with a forecast exceeding 400 GWh in 2025. Initial demand came from laptop PCs which was soon surpassed with smartphone use. The forecasted demand from electric vehicles is already eclipsing that of consumer devices.

Growth invites competition and increasing pricing pressures. The first to compete with the early Japanese manufacturers were the large Korean conglomerates LG Chem and Samsung SDI. By the early 2000s, the quality of the Korean batteries improved significantly and came to match that of the Japanese makers. Consumer device OEMs began to switch their supply chain from Japanese to Korean manufacturers. Sanyo, once a dominant supplier to laptop PCs, saw its market share dwindle. Panasonic suffered the same fate in consumer devices, and ultimately bet its future on Tesla Motors.

By 2010, China was rising to compete with LG Chem and Samsung SDI….but competing with these giants was no small feat. The quality of Chinese batteries was no match to their Korean or Japanese counterparts. Samsung SDI was effectively a sole supplier to Samsung Electronics. LG Chem offered great quality and supplied Samsung’s nemesis, Apple’s iPhones. Life was Good!

China is big. China is patient. China is focused…and China can be ruthless to foreign suppliers. As the smartphone industry grew competitive and Android opened up swathes of new customers in developing countries for inexpensive mobile devices, OEMs began to seriously consider lower cost batteries from lower tier Chinese suppliers…but only for smartphones aimed for China or developing countries in Asia, Africa or South America. The high-end market was still off-limits to Chinese battery suppliers, which meant LG Chem and Samsung SDI continued to enjoy dominance and profits.

Then Apple disrupted the landscape! Early in the current decade, Apple began to cultivate a little known Chinese battery manufacturer. This company’s name is Amperex Technology Limited, often abbreviated as ATL. It came to compete with LG Chem, Sony Energy and Samsung SDI for Apple’s iconic and fast growing iPhone business. TDK of Japan had acquired ATL a few years earlier in 2005. ATL was the opening salvo for Chinese manufacturers to take direct aim at the incumbents, namely LG Chem, Samsung SDI, Sony Energy, and to a lesser extent Hitachi Maxell of Japan. It is not known what fraction of the iPhone batteries are sourced from ATL but it is considered to be quite substantial judging from TDK’s public financial disclosures over the past years. ATL became a growth engine for TDK and a model for Chinese battery suppliers to expand outside of China.

August of 2016 was another aha moment. The batteries in the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 came into focus revealing that Samsung Electronics was now sourcing batteries from both Samsung SDI and ATL. Not only ATL was aggressively chasing its usual competitors, it was also going after Samsung SDI’s stronghold: the Samsung Galaxy series. ATL, by now, was making quality batteries at a substantial discount over LG Chem, Samsung SDI and Sony Energy. ATL was winning market share at a fast rate and enjoyed a very special position: no other Chinese battery manufacturer was yet able to break into the smartphone market outside of China.

With raging price wars in consumer batteries, LG Chem and Samsung SDI began to turn their sight to more profitable applications. Their financials for 2016 were far from exemplary. Guided by Panasonic’s successful model with Tesla Motors, they increasingly focused their resources and investments into the growing xEV market (including both hybrid and pure electric vehicles). LG Chem became the supplier of choice for the Chevy Volt and the Bolt. Samsung SDI supplies many of the German-built xEVs.

China map

In 2017, we see rising competitive pressures from additional Chinese battery suppliers that until recently were household names only in remote Chinese towns. Tianjin Lishen has grown to be a large player in China and increasing willing to supply top-tier OEMs around the world. Small players including Coslight, BAK and SCUD are emerging with prices attractive for the low-end and mid-tier smartphone market segments. It is estimated that there are nearly 100 such battery vendors throughout China….but for now, their questionable quality will keep many of them out of the race.

It takes very little in this historical examination to recognize that China is on its way to become a dominant supplier of lithium-ion batteries, at the very least for consumer electronic devices including smartphones. Quality is still not at par with batteries from Korea or Japan, but their aggressive pricing strategies will surely maintain momentum as they continue to improve their manufacturing. Barring unforeseen safety disasters that are uniquely attributed to Chinese manufacturers, this trend will continue if not accelerate. Chinese vendors will increase their market share in consumer devices as the large traditional vendors, in particular LG Chem, SDI, and Panasonic continue to shift their positions to xEVs.

From the view of the smartphone OEMs, this increasing shift in the supply chain disrupts the historic relationships between them and the battery vendors. Samsung Electronics’ cozy relationship with Samsung SDI cannot and will not be replicated with ATL. Same goes with LG Electronics and LG Chem. If you are an OEM, it is becoming imperative to take ownership of your “battery destiny.” Failing to do so will carry serious safety implications with disastrous financial consequences. Samsung Electronics is sufficiently large to weather the Note 7 fiasco, but other small OEMs may not have this luxury.