A first look inside ABB’s state-of-the-art, carbon-neutral Emobility Centre of Excellence in San Giovanni Valdarno, Italy

I had the chance to take a tour around ABB’s Centre of Excellence at its grand opening in June. ABB are a leading global firm that connects electrification, robotics, automation and motion for a more sustainable future. At the centre, I saw for myself the scale of ABB’s ambitious electric vehicle (EV) charging project. 

To outsiders, Italy is famed for its proud traditions of food, architecture and culture but ABB’s state-of-the-art new EV charging facility in San Giovanni Valdarno is anything but traditional. 

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With the capacity to produce a brand new rapid DC charger every 20 minutes and a dedicated 3,200㎡ space for research and development, the new site is at the pinnacle of emobility innovation. This is a sign of ABB’s ambition to lead the way towards a more sustainable transport system. 

Beyond the products themselves, the Valdarno plant’s energy-saving, waste-eliminating technology demonstrates that the EV infrastructure of tomorrow can be built with minimal environmental impact today.

I attended the grand opening of ABB’s Centre of Excellence to see the exciting new facility first-hand and meet some of the people who have brought this ambitious project to fruition. 

Meeting the Challenge

The biggest challenge facing emobility right now is well-known: we don’t have enough public chargers, let alone rapid DC options. As Christiano, the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport astutely identified: “For me, I drive long distances every day… I cannot afford to wait one hour in the middle of the day to recharge… and in Italy we don’t have many chargers along the highway.”

In the UK, the lack of charging options outside major cities is one of the most common factors putting people off transitioning to electric cars. I frequently meet drivers lamenting the lack of chargers along Britain’s motorways. The ones they do come across are all too often out of service. 

It’s a similar story in Europe, not just for commercial drivers like Christiano but also for fleet operators and individuals. This is one of the key challenges ABB are hoping to take on at Valdarno. 

First and foremost, the new facility will vastly expand ABB’s production capacity, producing an additional 10,000 DC chargers per year split between six products, ranging from 20kW wallboxes to 175kW HGV chargers. This includes the new Terra 360 – the world’s fastest EV charger, capable of fully charging an electric car in 15 minutes – installations of which began last month. 

The new plant is far more than just a factory. Alongside the bustling production line, the building houses an elite R&D department at the pinnacle of emobility innovation. It is in this laboratory, fitted with state-of-the-art climatic chambers and operated by a team of 70 top engineers, that the chargers of tomorrow will be built. 

Prototypes of their most powerful product yet, a new rapid DC charger for electric trucks, are already in the advanced stages of development. These are expected to be market-ready by 2025.

As well as creating all of this new hardware, ABB are also harnessing their R&D lab to improve and modify the chargers in their existing lines. Every charger is fitted with a modem which connects it to their cloud-based Ability™ asset management system, so data on how they perform is constantly flowing back to the team at Valdarno. Then, if any software tweaks need to be made, they can be sent out wirelessly and downloaded to the chargers situated around the world. 

Waqas Arshad, Chief Technical Officer of ABB’s emobility division, explained: “Through our asset management we can constantly improve our products. If there’s an issue out in the field we’re getting that information back, not just for maintenance but to work out how to modify the chargers for different (climatic) conditions and fine-tune them.”

Combining R&D with production in this unique way allows ABB to produce high-quality chargers that will last for years to come. It also gives them greater agility, modifying their products where necessary to suit different climates and bespoke customer needs. 

A Factory for the Future

While the production and research facilities were certainly impressive, what struck me the most about ABB’s Centre of Excellence was the sustainable design of the building itself. 

Not content to just produce ‘green’ products, ABB have gone to great lengths to ensure that the Valdarno facility adheres to the strictest possible environmental standards to obtain internationally recognised Gold LEED certification. 

Stefano Chieregato, Plant Manager, proudly listed some of the building’s eco-friendly features: “We used a special wool to insulate the building, we collect rainwater for gardening, there’s up to 600kW (worth) of photovoltaic equipment (solar panels) to recover energy… and we procure 100 percent (of the) energy from renewables. 

“All of the manufacturers, including the construction company (who built the plant) are proud to see all these best practices contained within one location.”

The R&D laboratory’s rigorous testing regime naturally requires a lot of energy but 90 percent gets recycled back into the overall facility thanks to its digitally integrated management system. Physical waste isn’t just minimised, it’s eliminated entirely, with nothing going to landfill. This is part of ABB’s wider ‘Sustainability 2030’ strategy to drive towards a circular economy. 

Frank Mühlon, CEO of ABB Emobility, said: “The facility itself, the way it’s built, the way it’s run, carbon-neutral and waste neutral. We make sure to tick all these boxes to make it a state-of-the-art facility and to make more circular products.”

ABB are leading the way forward with the Valdarno facility, not just in the emobility sector but for industry more broadly. Not only does it vastly expand their capacity to produce future-proof chargers that will help decarbonise our roads but those chargers are being built at minimal cost to the environment. 

The plant’s ambitious approach to recycling energy, water and waste, run on renewable energy and maximise efficiency could well be a blueprint for others to follow. This could inspire a new generation of hyper-efficient, environmentally unintrusive factories to help the world meet its pivotal net zero goals. 

For now, the new Centre of Excellence will be at the hub of ABB’s own efforts to develop the clean charging technology of the future, first and foremost in road transport but increasingly in other key industries like mining, shipping and aviation. 

As well as the progress ABB are making to engage businesses, they have also put some of their weight behind events like Formula E and campaigns like World EV Day, for which they will return as a partner for the third year running in September.

Mühlon concluded: “You need to make some noise in order to move things forward.”

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