Connect with Brandon Bartneck:
Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce you to our guest today, Brandon Bartneck. Brandon is Vice President and General Manager at Edison Manufacturing, and Engineering, a low-volume contract manufacturing partner focused on capital-light assembly of complex mobility and energy products.
Brandon also hosts the Future of Mobility and Capital Light Assembly Podcast. So Brandon, welcome to the show.
Brandon Bartneck: Thanks, Lisa. Great to be here.
Lisa Ryan: So, share a little about your background and what led you to do what you're doing at Edison Manufacturing.
Brandon Bartneck: Sure. I'm a mechanical engineer by background. I started my career at Boeing in process engineering and production engineering. Then, I entered the engineering services space and transitioned into business development and marketing for a large German engineering services company called FEV. FEV works to help companies create next-generation products that are helping to transform the mobility industry with improved internal combustion engines, drive trains, electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, autonomous vehicles, and all those types of things.
I then transitioned to Edison, where I was leading this organization last year. We'll talk about what we do and why we do it in this capital-light manufacturing manner—through my work at FEV, working with the companies trying to transform this dynamic mobility ecosystem. I saw that low-volume production was a challenge for a wide range of companies, from startups to some of the biggest companies in the world.
And that transition from developing new technology and creating prototypes and proof of concepts to scaling that into production in a commercially viable manner is a filter that takes a lot of companies out. However, it is also a key enabler in making that technology and enabling it to make the impact intended by the companies producing it.
So I saw this company, Edison, which culture fit very nicely with what I wanted to do. The service we're providing fits well with the things that are important to me., and that's how I got where I am.
Lisa Ryan: What are the complex mobility and energy products you guys are doing?
Brandon Bartneck: It's a wide range. Much of the work is in the new technology transforming the transportation ecosystem. It supports companies that are developing electric vehicles is a lot of it, so building battery packs and things that go along with battery packs or electric drives.
Also, the integration of electrified propulsion systems into vehicles. We're working in hydrogen fuel cells for mobility, energy storage, and the challenges of introducing these lower-emission vehicles Into the marketplace. But, again, we see infrastructure is a huge question, and the ability to supply the energy that can be used to charge these new vehicles where and when you need them.
We're supporting the building of microgrids, battery storage, and hydrogen fuel high-voltage storage areas. But, then, the third main area we're supporting currently in this new technology space is autonomous vehicles. So the shift as automated driving is taking off, there's a need to transform conventional vehicles with new sensors, computing power, and communication pathways on the vehicle. So we're supporting our customers to build those vehicles so that they can deploy them in the marketplace.
Lisa Ryan: So, how common are they? You see them delivering pizzas and stuff, but other than that, where are we in that process of having self-driving vehicles?
Brandon Bartneck: It's still early. There are a few different flavors. So the last-mile delivery you're alluding to here is taking off in certain areas. You're also seeing robo taxis growing in popularity in particular geographic regions like the southern US and Arizona, where it's more accessible and not as challenging of weather, but it's small pilot programs.
The areas we primarily support are more in the commercial logistics space and middle mile long haul delivery. A few vehicles are on the road right now, a few dozen. That's part of the reason it's small-scale right now. Everyone thinks it's going to scale up.
The volumes and timeframe are uncertain. It's unclear whether this is 6, 12, or 18 months. Probably not, but it's a few years or the end of the decade before autonomous vehicles roll out at scale. So that's why these companies that are trying to deploy this technology, the approach that we take capital light assembly approach is important because it allows them to build the product that they need to without deploying a ton of capital upfront, and giving them, digging themselves in such a financial hole that they depend on a very clear volume, and the timeline for getting these products on the road, which there isn't that level of certainty in the market right now.
Lisa Ryan: So what exactly is capital light assembly, and what are some of its benefits of it?
Brandon Bartneck: Thinking about the alternative, some of the guests that you've talked to in the past, like the traditional manufacturing, is often what we call a capital-heavy approach, where if you picture in your mind a manufacturing plant, you're probably picturing a whole lot of heavy automation robotics.
That approach is excellent for a lot of things. For most items that are manufactured, you're able to move quickly and lower labor costs. You're able to have very fine-tuned quality control through the automation here. So it's excellent for building hundreds of thousands, 50,000, maybe a million of something yearly.
We serve on the other side of the equation. We look at these products in the autonomous vehicle space, that you're talking dozens, hundreds, low, thousands of something per year. You're talking about a high degree of uncertainty often, whether that's uncertainty in the design changing in the marketplace, as I spoke of in the autonomous vehicle space or otherwise in these areas where you need to move quickly and with agility.
The capital-light approach refers to a philosophy around manufacturing that minimizes upfront capital expenditure. Not that we're afraid of spending money there and investing in fixtures and automation as it makes sense, but wherever possible, we try to lean towards manually driven processes that are then tightly controlled and intentional, strategic deployment of technology, and what the result there is. It could be more efficient to produce on a unit basis. Still, we're allowing our customers to get into manufacturing with a much lower initial hurdle and much lower initial capital expenditure, allowing them to scale over time.
Once you start building, if you build a few hundred or something, you can learn more about what that product will be, what the market will be, and when it will take off. So that allows this milestone-based decision-making so they can deploy capital in a less risky manner and with more clarity.
That's the objective or the need for the support., and ultimately what goes into doing that well is the ability to design and execute a manually driven process that is very tightly controlled.
Lisa Ryan: Now, in the beginning, when you were of sharing your background, you mentioned that this was an area that was a passion for you. What lights you up about what you're doing?
Brandon Bartneck: Yeah. Ultimately, the Future Mobility Podcast I run is built around exploring safe, sustainable, effective, and accessible transportation. That's something that means a lot to me. It's the question of how we move people and goods sustainably on many levels. I'm talking from an environmental perspective, but also that we can build meaningful businesses around this and serve our people, and ultimately the goal isn't to. Introduce new and exciting technology that suits the needs of our community sustainably, and it's safe, and we're not injuring and killing people on the roads.
Pursuing to make the transportation ecosystem more effective personally means a lot to me. So I'll pair that with this end goal of what we're doing is very important. The how and why is even more critical in finding a workplace where I enjoy going and my employees want to come. I'm serving customers meaningfully, and we're providing value and serving our community.
It's those two things, the friendly tug of war of the product and what we're doing is a significant, safe, sustainable transportation ecosystem—but also doing it in an additive and fulfilling way for myself and our team. So those are the things that excite me.
Lisa Ryan: That's an essential part of the conversation for people listening to the podcast to pay attention to your organization's mission and be willing to make changes and fail if things don't work right. Because it's an exciting time, there's such a commitment to being part of something that, like you just said, you are still determining if it will be a couple of years or decades before we fully integrate with the new technology.
But it's always interesting to hear, you know what, what lights people up? People should pay attention to that because they want to be part of something bigger than they are, and transportation certainly is. So what are some situations where there are the greatest needs for this capital-light approach to production?
Brandon Bartneck: There are two main areas. One is startups introducing a whole host of technology startups trying to introduce new technology. As I mentioned, The ability to build these things is commercially viable. So it is critical if they're going to make the impact they're trying to make.
For the most part, our technology companies, not manufacturing companies, provide a ton of value coming in. Working with these companies to establish the manufacturing strategy and then ultimately execute that strategy as they scale intelligently so that they're deploying this limited capital whether it's venture cap, venture or venture-backed capital or otherwise in an intelligent matter. The other piece is something I didn't expect about a year ago, but established companies, and we're working with some of the biggest companies in the world, global automotive, OEM, and industrial companies. This shift into the following form of mobility and transportation will be critical for these companies to have strategic and financial success a decade from now.
For the most part, they could be more financially attractive right now. There is a small market for some EV types or electric vehicles. It's growing in some markets, but a lot of the markets are just, we're talking hundreds of if you're looking at like work trucks or like industrial vehicles, forklifts, or even some of these infrastructure products.
They're very low-scale right now, not the scale that these companies are typically built to execute on. An automotive OEM is used to making millions of vehicles per year, not hundreds or thousands. So we found that we are an enabler for these companies to go in, in a commercially viable way, and through these markets, try to grab market share while there's an opportunity and position themselves for.
Down the line without requiring that considerable capital expenditure. The flip side of that is they have other products. They have the cash cows that they need to continue to build. We're finding that as the volumes for that decline. They have highly automated production for certain products cause they're making a ton of them.
As those volumes decline, this capital-light, manually driven process becomes attractive on the backend and the life cycle maintenance for those products. ,
Lisa Ryan: But it would be easier to tweak these products if you only have a hundred versus 10,000 vehicles. You need to change the technology or one of the pieces or parts there to make it more effective. That would be more flexible as far as that goes too. Is that what they're finding? What does it take to execute successfully in this space?
Brandon Bartneck: So one of the big challenges is building quality into an approach like this? We've fortunately had experience in this space. Still, you have to be much more intentional about the design of the process and how you train and employ or deploy your people, which are the main resources to build these, so you're not replying, you're not relying on a very repeatable robotic arm to, to make many of these things. We're counting on humans to build this with, that is, training and buying into the system with clear instructions and manufacturing approaches. These approaches have quality built into those processes. One of the critical pieces is the ability to look at this design and intentional manufacturing process with process interlocks and things that don't allow manual errors to continue to grow throughout the process.
Lisa Ryan: For the people you're hiring, do they have to come in with a specific skill set regarding an engineering background, or do you sometimes look for a good cultural fit and then teach them the skills they need?
Brandon Bartneck: It's both. The cultural fit is critical across the board. That will continue as we execute the early builds for a program. It's a lot of engineering-minded individuals and experienced individuals who are leading that. But the magic is in the ability to transform that expertise into a process that can be executed by a skilled technician, someone familiar with executing builds in a repeatable way but might not be the expert on the product. The key enablers for us to execute in the space are the ability to put together work instructions and a manufacturing execution system that enables people who are less technically savvy on the technology itself to execute these builds in a repeatable way.
Lisa Ryan: Company culture is one thing that we talk a lot about on this show because I believe, and the numbers show it, that when you get the culture right, as long as you're paying a marketable wage, money is not the be all, end all that people a ascribe it to be. It's just something that you have to do to get the culture right.
You have done a great job over there at Edison regarding your culture and focus on living out your company's core values. So talk to us about that. What are your values? How did you develop them, and how does that focus turn out as far as your employees?
Brandon Bartneck: This goes even a layer beyond Edison. So we're not a standalone company. We have a sister company, PJ Walbank Springs, a transmission component supplier that's been around for 40 years and is part of a holding company. One of the things that drew me to Edison, in addition to what I mentioned before, was that there is a clear vision for this organization.
That starts with, we want to impact society in a certain way positively, and we want to serve our people, customers, and community in a certain way. So we have key practices and core values that have been defined for, okay, here's how we do it. Here's what we're looking for in our team and what's required.
And that's super powerful for me as a North Star, and I ensure our teams align. So this core values piece is part of the daily discussion of how we provide that. We're maintaining that as we grow and live out the value. The way our values have been defined, it's one, take ownership.
Two, either win or learn. Three: the golden rule - treat others as you'd like to be treated. Four, challenge the status quo. The type of work that we're doing is complex. We're agile. We are moving quickly. We're relying on our people to execute. That requires deep ownership of someone willing to come in, own what they're doing, take responsibility outside of the specific roles that have been undefined, buy into the team, and be part of this culture.
Always be challenging the status quo, looking for ways to improve things. Learning from every opportunity, and ultimately just being a good person, is how we think about this, and we've. One of the best proofs is telling this story and being clear about the values. One of our customers recently remarked that working with Edison, he said, yeah, it's great that you guys are sharing this because, from the other side of the customer, it's evident that the culture is on point and is doing what you guys expect to.
That means a ton because having a great alignment within our four walls is great. But the result here is that we're trying to serve our customers in the best way., and it's great when they can see that as well.
Lisa Ryan: When it comes to bringing on the right people, because for the culture that you have there, it sounds like it's a safe culture for people to take the initiative and either win or learn and then, giving people the opportunity to fail because you know that's not always going to be a, of breaking the rules. But what are some of the ways that you determine that somebody's a good fit for your organization?
Brandon Bartneck: Yeah, that's a great question. So we have traits we're looking for, and curiosity and humility's huge—a desire to continue learning. So we can define what we're looking for in these people with that.
And then how do you go about evaluating and figuring out where? That's where your question is, right? We're not quick to hire. We have a long relationship-built approach, for the most part, where we have prolonged discussions with individuals. So we're trying to walk through the history of what has happened and how people are processing, thinking about, and learning about their career experiences thus far.
Also, one of the things I hadn't been exposed to before is that we incorporate a test drive into our evaluation and decision-making process, which is what we're evaluating or defining. Real-world scenarios that this individual will experience in their role, and trying to discuss how they approach it and have them do the work of, hey, here's some of the work that's required, please, come out. We'll discuss, report, and present what goes into that, which serves both sides. So one, it allows the candidate to see, Hey, here's what the work looks like. Is this something that excites me, or does it seem like, yeah, that I dread doing? and it also allows us to see the competency, but also more than that kind of the way the individual thinks about and approaches a task like that. Whether it's something they're eager to go at and learn and dig into the things where. Have blind spots in their expertise; if not, maybe it's not the right fit.
Lisa Ryan: I looked at it when my husband joined this new company last year. It was like eight interviews and six hours of personality tests to ensure they brought the right people on. He's just so happy. Sometimes, people want to get a body in there to fill space when there's an open position. But as I say, in many of my programs and clients that I work with, you need to hire more slowly and fire more quickly.
Then it would help if you took the time to give them, show them parts of the job, and have those conversations. People will show their...