From Holdens to home batteries: sonnen helps recharge workforce

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By Melissa Keogh

Adam Williams began his first full-time job as an apprentice toolmaker at Holden’s Elizabeth factory at the age of 19. Fast forward more than two decades and instead of cars coming off the production line it’s home battery systems.

After almost two decades working at Holden in various roles including leadership and management positions, Adam is still in the manufacturing game and is back under the same roof of the historic car-making site.

He now leads manufacturing operations at sonnen, a global home battery giant that has set up in the old Holden factory, now rebadged as Lionsgate Business Park and home to a small handful of other hi-tech manufacturing businesses.

“Ironically, my very first day at Holden was in this building that sonnen is setting up in,” says Adam, Brand South Australia’s latest I Choose SA ambassador for the trade and investment sector.

“Holden was a big part of my life, it taught me a lot and gave me a big insight into business, lead processes, safety and culture, which are all invaluable to manufacturing outside of auto.”

sonnen Australia’s manufacturing manager Adam Williams is Brand South Australia’s latest I Choose SA ambassador. Photo by JKTP.

The former manufacturing plant in Adelaide’s north has remained relatively disused since the last of Holden’s Elizabeth employees officially clocked off for the last time in November 2017, closing a near-century old chapter of Australian car-making history.

But investment by Melbourne-based Pelligra Group in the site has seen advanced manufacturing tenants including sonnen move in and establish presences here in SA.

Founded in Germany in 2010, sonnen produces the sonnenBatterie, a hi-tech energy system that stores and adjusts household usage of solar power.

All but two of the current 50 employees at sonnen’s Australian HQ are ex-Holden workers, and Adam says their auto-manufacturing skills have been transferrable into the new industry.

“When you’ve been doing something for so long, you never quite know if your skills will be relevant in a different industry, but I quickly found the philosophies and mentality around manufacturing and business were very transferrable,” he says.

“Our employees bring many skills in terms of understanding continuous improvement, they understand safety, advanced manufacturing and lean manufacturing.”

The first employees at sonnen’s Adelaide factory when it opened in 2018.

Adam left Holden in 2015, two years after General Motors officially announced it would eventually close the Elizabeth plant. He went on to spend three years at medical x-ray manufacturer and start-up Micro X based at the Tonsley Innovation District, another old car factory once home to Mitsubishi.

Upon hearing the news of sonnen’s plans to invest in SA, Adam researched the home battery maker and was drawn to the opportunity to be a part of a global company with high manufacturing volumes of about 10,000 home battery systems a year.

“To see this site reborn is really exciting, it’s going to be good for the state and good for the northern area of Adelaide,” he says.

“I love manufacturing and the philosophy behind it, what it brings to the state and the economy. Even though I left Holden, it’s an industry I want to stay in.”

The sonnenBatteries work by controlling how the battery stores and releases solar power into the home. The system can isolate itself from the electricity grid during blackouts, allowing a household to use its own stored energy until the power comes back on.

In Germany, thousands of homes are already connected to a ‘virtual power plant’ – a sonnenCommunity – where power is shared between households, resulting in no need for a conventional energy provider.

Minister for Energy and Mining Dan van Holst Pellekaan, left, and Premier Steven Marshall congratulate Sonnen CEO Christoph Ostermann at the sonnen launch in Adelaide in 2018.

“That is the goal here as well,” Adam says. “The more people we have on batteries, the less demand on the grid.”

sonnen was the first vendor to be accredited to SA’s Home Battery Scheme, a $100 million government initiative allowing households to install solar panels and a storage battery at a reduced cost.

But it wasn’t the scheme that motivated sonnen to set up in SA, says head of Asia Pacific and managing director of sonnen Australia Nathan Dunn, but rather the state’s advanced manufacturing capabilities.

“The ready pool of talent in SA will allow us to tap into future demand for sonnenBatteries and allow us to scale our operations within SA,”  Nathan says.

“Another reason we have chosen to establish a presence in SA is the significant local ecosystem of suppliers that we can partner with to acquire components needed for the manufacturing of sonnenBatteries locally.

“Our goal is to ultimately increase the level of Australian sourced components to build a battery that is fully made in SA.”

Nathan says the goal is to produce sonnenBatteries to meet the needs of Australian customers before the company looks towards export opportunities into New Zealand, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.

Read more:

· German battery giant to create 430 manufacturing jobs for SA

· Why energy giant sonnen chose to invest in SA

Industry in focus: Trade and Investment

Throughout the months of January and February, the state’s trade and investment industry will be explored as part of I Choose SA.

South Australia is in a prime position for trade and investment opportunities as we have a 24-hour connection to international markets and a prime reputation for our premium products and services.  Read more trade and investment stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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