Masters of Manufacturing: LG Chem Power CEO Puts Charge into EV Batteries

Denise Gray aims to lower battery costs, raise quality and help make electric cars ubiquitous.

This is the latest in our “Masters of Manufacturing” series, presented in partnership with The Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Each month we share insights and ideas from innovative, growth-minded manufacturing CEOs from across the nation as they navigate this tricky time in history.

If all-electric vehicles are ever going to occupy the central place in American manufacturing that their internal-combustion predecessors do now, Denise Gray will be one of the people responsible. She’s a key figure in making batteries powerful, affordable and safe enough that soon the technology may have a shot at displacing the propulsion method which has powered automobiles for the last century.

“Batteries are us,” the president and CEO of LG Chem Power, the Troy, Michigan-based North American arm of $24-billion LG Chem, the largest Korean chemical company and a major battery manufacturer globally, tells Chief Executive. “We’re doing one of the major components that will make or not allow for the whole EV industry. We’re in the middle of that.”

Gray’s company counts General Motors, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler and Volvo as clients for a wide variety of LG Chem batteries which include not only the most advanced lithium-ion units for all-electric vehicles but also less-powerful batteries for various forms of hybrids and also the conventional 12-volt batteries that keep the world’s existing automotive fleet ticking.

She moved to the middle of the EV revolution about four years ago when the CEO of LG Chem Power, Prabhaker Patil, recruited Gray to become his successor. She had spent five years with a couple of specialty suppliers in the growing EV space and, perhaps even more relevant, 29 years rising through GM on the powertrain-engineering side, eventually to director of energy-storage systems.

Gray says two of her main goals are to help reduce battery-systems costs even further and to make sure that her U.S.-based clients have access to the best electric-propulsion advances from around the world.

The cost quandary is key for LG and other battery makers because as long as all-electric vehicles either cost more than gasoline-powered models, or are stripped down essentially to battery-carrying transports so that they can be affordable to mainstream consumers, EVs won’t achieve the mass-market status to which they aspire.

Gray says that the industry has brought down costs substantially, in big increments, three times over the last several years and that “there will be another step down in the early 2020s with the evolution of current technology. In fact, since 2010, she says, there’s been about a 70-percent reduction in the “landed” cost of batteries to automakers, which she called “amazing progress.”

“It also speaks to the commitment of battery manufacturers, OEMs, universities and national testing labs, who are all continuing to work to bring prices down and performance up,” Gray says. “The pressure is a lot but I’m hopeful because we’ve got some great minds working through it.”

She mentioned, for instance, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry that was awarded in October to three scientists for their work developing lithium-ion batteries. “It’s about time that someone recognizes the work [the industry] has put in in order to be where we are today,” Gray says.

The industry’s holy grail is the appearance someday of some kind of new chemistry for batteries that hasn’t occurred to anyone so far, which would make them perhaps exponentially lighter, longer-lasting on a charge, and less expensive. For now, LG Chem and its competitors remain engaged in the tough slog of improving performance, design and manufacture of lithium-ion batteries.

And that plays to Gray’s experience with General Motors. “This is not a commodity where someone says, ‘Send me 50,000 of them,” Gray notes. In order to be able to continue to reduce the cost of the battery and to provide more advanced functions like fast charging, it really needs to be a collaboration with OEMs.”

Gray described another important role for her as being “the conduit to make sure that as breakthroughs” happen in South Korea and elsewhere to advance battery chemistry and manufacture, “we can make sure they’re available to [customers] in the United States” and that American automakers “have immediate access to it.”

So far, demand for EVs remains much higher in Europe and China than in the United States, for a variety of reasons including economics, industry characteristics and consumer behaviors—so it’s only natural that automakers in those higher-volume regions might get access to advances, including cost reductions, more quickly . “If we’re complacent in the U.S., that can be a problem, because in many cases demand drives research and breakthroughs,” Gray says. “We can’t be complacent.”

As a Detroit native and area resident, and a long-time denizen of the auto industry, in her role with LG Chem Gray is especially sensitive to how owners and buyers of gasoline-powered vehicles react to her job and to EVs generally.

“They ask, ‘When is someone going to make a beautiful-looking electric car that isn’t going to cost me $100,000?’” Gray says. “But I’m starting to see some amazing vehicles that OEMs are creating and I think people are going to fall over that they’ve got to have them—even though they’re EVs. These will be SUVs and beautiful sedans, not just small and aerodynamic-looking vehicles. So I say, hang on—they’re coming.”

As an engineer by background, Gray likes being a role model for women, and women of color, and serves in a variety of capacities to promote STEM disciplines to young people. She benefited from her seventh-grade teacher, “Mr. Oliver,” who encouraged her to put her math and science proclivities to good use and to attend Cass Technical High School in Detroit. And at GM, Gray says, a variety of mentors helped her along.

“It’s an obligation” for her to exert her own such efforts, Gray says. “I’ve been blessed with opportunities, and I see where it’s brought me, so I want to bless others with the opportunity and encouragement to allow them to reach their full potential.”