Saft America: half a century in the United States
Saft has been operating in America for half of its 100-year history. In that time, it has gone from one site to five key locations across the US and now produces a range of battery chemistries for a variety of customers, including the military and energy companies.
Saft entered the US with the ambition of bringing its new nickel cadmium technology to the US airline industry. In 1951, Saft began talks with the Bureau of Aeronautics through a businessman, Hazard Reeves, who was eager to get the license to produce Saft batteries in the US. After Saft submitted its Alcabloc and Voltabloc batteries to the Bureau of Standards in Washington for official approval, the Bureau of Aeronautics signed a $500,000 contract.
In May 1957, Saft Corporation of America was formed in Lodi, New Jersey, as a joint enterprise with Reeves Soundcraft Corporation. But although the Saft batteries had a technological advantage, working with associates with no battery experience proved difficult, and the new company struggled to win against American lead-acid battery competitors. Separate difficulties in the qualification process led to the closure of Saft Corp in October 1957.
By 1974, the company understood that to develop rapidly in the US it needed its own local production site. Saft, then part of CGE (Compagnie Générale d’Electricité), had owned a share in the aircraft-battery manufacturing division of Gulton Industries for several years, and increased its holding in May 1973 to become the largest stakeholder. A year later, the Board agreed to rename the company Saft America. Gulton manufactured nickel-based prismatic cells for aircraft from its production facility in New Jersey. In 1975, Saft America relocated its operations to a brand-new plant in Valdosta, Georgia, producing portable cells for the commercial market and prismatic cells for aviation. The Valdosta facility is still going strong today, and some of the original members of staff are still working there, more than 40 years later.
From these foundations, Saft soon began to expand. In 1978, it purchased SCORE, a small company in Cockeysville, Maryland, that made thermal batteries for the space and defense market. The acquisition also gave Saft lithium production facilities, which would become increasingly important in later years. Within two years, Saft had made the previously loss-making business profitable. As with Valdosta, Saft still operates in Cockeysville today.
In 1983, Saft accelerated its nickel-based portable cell manufacturing by purchasing Gould National Batteries. The firm operated in St Paul, Minnesota, and Tijuana, Mexico. A couple of years after that deal, Saft relocated the Minnesota facility to Valdosta, but retained the Tijuana site, which was used for assembly, as well as a warehousing operation. The Tijuana site closed in June 2001, with the remaining production moved to France.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Saft made another key acquisition when it purchased Duracell’s business-to-business operations in Valdese, North Carolina. Duracell was looking to get out of the B2B battery business and Saft, with no consumer operations at that time to compete with Duracell, was the perfect suitor. In exchange, Saft expanded its lithium sulfur dioxide (Li-SO2) capabilities and added a new US site.
By the 1980s, the US Army was the world’s largest consumer of lithium-based batteries, mostly for its radio applications. However, while the French Army was using the more advanced lithium thionyl chloride (Li-SOCI2) chemistry, its US counterpart preferred Li-SO2 cells, despite their lower energy. As this market was about 10 times larger than in Europe, Saft decided to manufacture Li-SO2 in the US.After the Duracell deal, Saft made Valdese its center for both Li-SO2 and Li-SOCI2, and relocated Cockeysville’s capability there, leaving Cockeysville as a mostly thermal-battery plant. At around the same time, Saft America made the purchase of Catalyst Research, which brought lithium-anode technology to Saft’s Cockeysville portfolio.
In 1991, Operation Desert Storm saw a massive deployment of US forces to the Gulf, as America responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The operation created a huge demand for batteries for GPS, night-vision and other applications, and led to an order worth $120m, the largest in Saft’s history. To meet the order, Valdese quadrupled in size. The plant would grow again a dozen years later, with the launch of the second Gulf War.
In between the two wars in the Gulf, Saft took on an increasing role in making military batteries. In 1995, the company signed a contract to provide the battery for the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Then known as the Advanced Tactical Fighter, the jet had its first flight in 1997, and was the first application for Saft’s Aircraft Maintenance-Free Battery (AMFB). The final F-22 was delivered to the US Air Force in 2012.
In 1993, Cockeysville ceased to be a production site after Saft decided to stop making thermal cells that were no longer profitable. Cockeysville became an R&D-only facility and would remain so for the next 10 years. The 1990s also saw the development of in-house lithium-ion technology and industrial processes. Major discoveries were made and important patents were granted to Saft. The Cockeysville R&D team was key in quickly building lithium-ion technology prototypes, especially for defense applications. Since then, lithium-ion has become one of Saft’s core technologies.
In 1996, Saft began developing its own electronic battery-control systems, because lithium-ion cells could not be used safely without them. Over the next decade, the electrical and software engineering team in Cockeysville developed increasingly complex systems for everything from small 28V batteries up to electronics and software for the Joint Strike Fighter 270V battery, qualified to aviation standards.
Meanwhile, Saft’s pattern of acquisitions continued. NIFE, a Greenville, North Carolina company, was bought in 1991, together with the acquisition of the NIFE group worldwide, giving Saft America pocket-plate cell and battery assembly, industrial primary battery recycling and bring-back recycling for nickel-based batteries. All of this was transferred to Valdosta.
Gates Aerospace Batteries was acquired in 1993, bringing on board Annie Sennet, now Saft’s Executive Vice President for Space & Defense and Saft America’s President and CEO. Hawker Eternacell, bought in 2001, increased Saft’s Li-SO2 capabilities and made Saft a major world player in that market.
Throughout the 1990s, the R&D Center performed funded research into molten-salt secondary batteries under contract with the US Advanced Battery Consortium, backed by the US Department of Energy. This effort did not lead to a molten-salt rechargeable battery, but it did help maintain the capability to build thermal batteries.
As that activity slowly became more substantial, Saft once again established a thermal-battery production operation in Cockeysville, as part of a new subsidiary with EADS – now known as Airbus – called Advanced Thermal Batteries.
In 2011, Saft opened a new facility in Jacksonville, Florida, a little over 100 miles away from the Valdosta plant where Saft America began. The result was a state-of-the-art facility to enhance Saft’s ability to produce lithium-ion batteries, which have a growing range of uses in the modern world, such as renewable energy, electric vehicles and telecom applications.
Another growing technology over the past decade has been metering, and Saft’s batteries have been increasingly in demand in this sector, too. In 2012, Valdese began producing lithium manganese dioxide (Li-MnO2) cells for new metering applications.
Today, Saft America represents 36 percent of the company's total sales, and is a major contributor to Saft's overall customer base. Saft America's five locations in the US (four manufacturing plants and a distribution center) employ close to 1,000 people and produce batteries for all of Saft's major markets.
Saft America continues to be a hub of innovation. At Saft's US R&D center in Cockeysville, 14 employees are working on projects such as the development of lithium titanate (LTO) cells for 12V start-stop batteries; development of Formula One car cells operating at high rate and elevated temperature; and development of manganese phosphate, providing safe and high energy density cells.
Saft America's contributions in manufacturing, research, business development and, of course, the people who make it happen, are a significant part of Saft's history and part of the fabric of both who we were then and who we are today.