HOLLAND — While many producers of advanced electrical systems have their sights set on electric vehicles, one West Michigan manufacturer is pursuing a more underserved sector.
Instead of focusing on the passenger vehicle market, Holland-based Volta Power Systems LLC produces a variety of lithium-ion batteries, alternators and power inverters for high-end recreational vehicles and marine and heavy equipment applications.
“We identified the need for bringing advanced energy solutions to medium and small markets,” said Jack Johnson, co-founder and director of operations for the company. “How can we take this technology and bring it into markets where there is more value?”
Rather than use the systems for propulsion applications, Volta develops its products as a lightweight or performance alternative, particularly for luxury coaches and recreational vehicles.
Most large motorhomes or buses incorporate an extra engine just to power the onboard accessories, such as air conditioning units, entertainment systems, refrigerators and other appliances. However, Volta’s technology allows customers to remove the extra engine altogether or convert it to a hybrid system that uses far less energy, Johnson said.
“If you see the big high-end buses go down the road, they have five air conditioners on top and you’re running down the road in your own penthouse, basically,” Johnson said. “What they do is put an engine bigger than your car as a secondary engine just to run the lights and all the energy needs. You can run our system without a generator and it’s silent, or you can couple it (with a generator) and now it’s a hybrid that only runs when you need to fill the batteries.”
Traditional lead-acid batteries may only be able to power the accessories on an RV for 15 minutes without running the engine, but a similar system from Volta can sustain it for roughly 5 hours, Johnson said. Moreover, that performance often comes with weight reduction to the overall vehicle — shaving off as much as 2,000 pounds in some cases, he added.
Volta generated approximately $2 million in annual sales in 2016 and plans to grow to about $7 million this year, Johnson said. The company currently employs five workers and aims to nearly double its staff in 2017.
To accommodate its planned growth, the company recently moved into a 7,800-square-foot facility in Holland, which will double its manufacturing space.
“We were basically out of space,” Johnson said.
MANAGING FUTURE GROWTH
Johnson, who helped establish the Johnson Controls Inc. Meadowbrook lithium-ion battery plant in Holland, launched Volta Power Systems in late 2014 with Bill Cavanaugh, also formerly of JCI. The pair partnered with Randy VanKlompenberg, Todd Ritter and Joe Doddy of Inline Electric and Controls Inc., a Holland-based provider of electrical systems.
VanKlompenberg and the other co-owners of Inline Electric contributed $500,000 in seed capital to help form Volta Power Systems and allowed the company to work out of its facility — where it stayed until moving on its own this year.
For VanKlompenberg, who also owns Pantera Luxury Coach LLC, a dealer of high-end coaches, the decision to invest in Volta Power Systems came easily.
“With my knowledge of the electrical control side of it and the knowledge of the RV market, that’s why we were interested and willing to take this leap,” he said.
VanKlompenberg and Johnson believe Volta is positioned to compete with other providers of lithium-ion batteries, many of which use repackaged laptop batteries that lack the performance of purpose-built models.
“Our systems are complete,” Johnson said. “You can’t piece them into other stuff. You’re going to buy our entire system and it’s going to work and it’s going to work reliably and you won’t have the investment in engineering or failure time.”
At least for the near term, Volta Power Systems plans to focus on the three markets it currently supports, Johnson said.
“Our focus will be on these niche markets where customers cannot afford the capital or people to get this technology,” he said. “Where that will lead us, we don’t know.”
To that end, Volta has made some inroads with the movie industry, which often needs access to vast amounts of power in remote locations for filming, Johnson said.
The company also plans to push down market in the recreational vehicle industry, scaling its products to fit smaller applications such as travel trailers and fifth wheel campers.
In addition to avoiding the electric vehicle market, Volta also has no plans to tout the “green” aspect of its products, focusing instead on the technology’s performance attributes.
“The green approach, in my experience, has never worked,” Johnson said. “That’s why we’ve seen so many companies fail. People don’t open their wallet unless there is some value and the value here is comfort, convenience and longer (battery) life.”
Made In Michigan: Holland-based Volta Power Systems LLC formed in late 2014 to bring automotive-grade lithium-ion battery components to the recreational vehicle and other markets. Now in its third year of operation, the maker of advanced electrical components has grown to generate around $2 million in annual sales as of 2016 and expects to hit $7 million this year, said co-founder Jack Johnson. The company primarily serves the high-end motor coach and recreational vehicle market, as well as marine and heavy equipment applications.