Tritium’s appointment in March 2020 of Jane Hunter, previously a Boeing Phantom Works executive, as CEO marked a milestone for the company which has developed a world-leading fast EV charging product line from its beginnings in solar car racing. A former barrister, who has a passion for cars — don’t get her started! — Hunter was attracted to Tritium for its successful global commercialisation of home-grown intellectual property, and the fact that it is engaged in advanced manufacturing of products in Brisbane that are being exported to the world.
“It’s not something Australia usually does very successfully,” she said at the time, “so I am excited to be working with such a unique model.”
Six months into her role, Hunter is well into rebuilding a local engineering skills base — manufacturing engineers, power electronics engineers and harness engineers she says were on LinkedIn’s endangered list — that will help accelerate Tritium’s business plan. She spoke with pv magazine about the company’s reorganisation, upcoming products and its role in Australia’s technology ecosystem.
pv magazine: What kind of impact do you feel that Tritium can have on Australia’s uptake of EVS?
Jane Hunter: I think we’re in a prime position to help influence and educate the Australian public about taking up EVs, by providing a world-leading EV-charging company in their own backyard. We’ve got 90% of the market share here in Australia and about 75% of the market share in New Zealand.
It gives Australians a sense of understanding and confidence in the technology. We’re helping people to realise that having a lot of vast open space is not insurmountable. We are going to be able to put chargers at regular intervals across that space just like petrol pumps. That deals with range anxiety.
Why is it so important that we accelerate the transition to EVs?
It’s critical because new technologies are typically better than old technologies. It’s not just the fact that they enable us to use renewable energy for transport. Most people understand the fundamental benefits of being able to reduce emissions and reduce pollution. Once you’ve driven an EV it’s very hard to go back because they’re so quiet, so smooth, the pickup is so fast.
People might think of an EV charger as similar to a petrol bowser, and that’s good for a sense of familiarity in how to use it, but how innovative is this technology?
Look, it’s very innovative, it’s highly complicated power electronics, and that makes the barrier to entry for other companies fairly high. If we compare it to simpler technologies like, say, making car batteries, they’re a far simpler manufacture. Our chargers have a very complex liquid cooling system, and the IP 65 rating we have means it’s a fully sealed enclosure. Keeping these units running as standalone pieces of infrastructure means you need to have an overarching software management platform — the ability to look at what your chargers are doing and to have our engineers or our customer support people help out with remote fixes and things.
The Federal Government is talking about a manufacturing and technology-led recovery. That seems to play exactly to Tritium strengths. Are you working with government to increase demand for Tritium product and boost manufacturing?
Yeah, absolutely. The government is incredibly receptive at the moment, and we’re seeing support right across the spectrum in the states. There’s the Yurika network, which is Queensland’s Electric Super Highway, and Victoria has also rolled out a number of DC chargers, and now we’re seeing New South Wales Government come out with its Net Zero Plan which has EV chargers and vehicles as a central policy area.
At the Federal level, the first sort of significant piece of support I’ve seen is in the Technology Investment Roadmap Discussion Paper, which also has EVs as a fundamental piece. Government has come to us and asked, “What are the levers?” — what could they do to support roll out? They’re certainly asking the right questions and I’ll be really interested to see if they pick up on any of those levers.
How much Tritium product is actually manufactured in Australia?
The bulk of it — about 70% to 80% — is manufactured here. The three critical lines, what we call our PK, RT and ISD (which is the IONITY dispenser line) are all manufactured here in Brisbane, and we manufacture the power units and control units over in Amsterdam because they’re big, bulky and heavy and that’s closer to our largest market, which is Europe. Here in Australia we produce all of the user units, so that manufacture can be co-located with engineering. We have about 100 engineers, who make up a third of our employees, and all but a couple are based in Brisbane. It’s fantastic that they’re able to go across to the factory to talk about continuous improvement and optimisation, to deal with complex issues. In fact throughout COVID they’ve been able to address things like supply-chain issues. If we couldn’t get parts out of Asia, they’ve been able to identify another pump we could use, or a Brisbane-based supplier of PCBAs. That colocation of engineers with manufacturing has always been critical to us and we expect to expand here.
What are you excited about?
It’s a bit technically geeky, but we’re really excited to be building a world-first IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission] test centre right next door to our engineering centre. It’s a multi-million dollar investment and will allow us to test high-voltage equipment up to 700 kilowatts, which we currently have to go to Germany to do. Soon we’ll be able to iteratively test next door and in a couple of years we’ll be able to certify here too. Flying our our people to Germany is expensive, between $250,000 and $350,000 because they have to stay for weeks, and if you don’t pass the test it’s devastating because they have to come back to Australia, start again, and go back and test further. The delay to market is critical. We think the test centre will pay itself off within a couple of years. It’s going to be a massive advantage for us, and we look forward to opening it as a commercial facility for other businesses to use.
You recently raised a $45 million debt facility through Cigna Corporation in the US. What’s next in terms of the Tritium business plan?
Being able to raise debt is a sign of confidence. If somebody is willing to give you debt to the level that we got, they believe you can repay it. We’re hoping that’s the last significant debt or equity raise that we’ll need to do. The plan we’ve put together and the budget forecast for the next year is to reach a positive EBITDA and to also reach profit in this financial year.
Tritium has shifted its focus from startup mode — growing, gathering revenue, attracting equity investment — to turn towards profit. We’ve separated our engineering team now into an R&D team with the focus on the new product that’s led by Dave Finn, one of our founders [previously CEO and now Chief Growth Officer]. He’s going great guns, throwing all of his energy at this new-product roadmap. Then there’s the value engineering team that is focused on the existing product suite and pulling costs out of it, so that the margins become sustainable enough for us to make a profit.
Tritium is also rolling out supportive technologies to charging infrastructure, systems such as Pulse and the Plug and Charge payment system. How important are they to your core products?
They’re essential. I see them as not just enabling but as part of the entry to market. If you don’t have things like Tritium Pulse which is our network-management platform, then it’s tough to enter the market because your customers are going to be looking for some sort of ability to manage their hardware, to see online when it’s up, when it’s down, how people are using it. If you don’t have that they’re going to look to somebody else to provide it and then you get into the complexity of having somebody else’s software integrate with your platform. For me, Pulse is not only enabling but it’s a value add because it allows you to increase your ROI, and also increase your customer understanding: What’s the customer experience like? Have we made that customer unhappy? New customers sometimes struggle with how to charge.They might not push the plug in quite hard enough, or they can’t make the credit-card reader work; Pulse allows us to reach out personally to customers, put a number up on the screen and say, “Give us a call, we can help”. Plug and Charge is similar in that it makes charging simpler, faster and super convenient for people.
What else is coming up in the Tritium product line?
We have a series of new products in Q1 of 2021 which is now imminent! And a scalable solution where you can scale up from 25 to 50 to 75, all the way up to 350. That solution will allow our products to be future proofed in that, if you start at 25 and you want to add to the box, you don’t have to change out the main infrastructure.
This year we released the RT 175 and that’s really selling very well in America. We’ve just installed the first ones at the Port of Long Beach. We can see a lot of pent up demand for those RT 175s, in fact demand is running ahead of production at this stage.
Of course Tritium will only grow if EV uptake grows. What is needed to pick up the pace in Australia?
Some of what the government could do is free! I say to them, “All you need to do is support EV uptake by communicating that you support it, that it’s an advanced technology, and that it’s coming.” They need to clarify their position for the public.
Then there’s the luxury car tax threshold, which is different for fuel-efficient versus non-fuel-efficient vehicles; and that I advocate should be different again for electric vehicles. We don’t need to price it at a point where you can go out and buy a Mercedes, but we want to put it at a level where you can get what I call an ordinary family-level electric vehicle at an affordable price. That’s no different than what the government’s done with solar; they’ve gone out with solar and helped you with the initial upfront purchase price so that you get this great total cost of ownership benefit, and they get the benefit of you coming off the grid and contributing back to the grid.
And that’s where ultimately vehicle-to-grid is going to be very attractive to governments. When you know they’re able to get battery storage coming out of cars and being able to give back to the grid. So those are the things that I’m kind of pushing Government on, and hoping that they can help. And even if it’s just communication of their support, that’s half the battle.
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