Episode Description

Host Cortney Piper interviews Gina Maria Bonini, Vice President and General Manager of Advanced Thermal Systems at Modine. They are headquartered in Racine, Wisconsin, but the EV component manufacturing occurs at their plant in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.

Modine has a rich history of automotive thermal management, dating back to the first radiator installed on the Ford Model T. Now, Modine is at the forefront of making zero-emissions mobility a reality for all vehicle classes and duty cycles.

Listen to Piper and Bonini talk about thermal management and why it is so critical for electrification, how Modine is overcoming engineering challenges to keep heavy-duty EVs viable in dirty and severe environments and about Modine’s presence in Tennessee.

Learn more about TAEBC and Modine. Thank you to our podcast sponsor FirstBank!

Episode Transcript

Cortney Piper: Welcome to Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. I’m your host, Cortney Piper.

In this episode, we’re speaking with a company that’s been at the forefront of automotive innovation since, well…the beginning of automobiles. I was pleased to speak with Gina Bonini, the Vice President and General Manager of Advanced Thermal Systems at Modine. Modine was founded in 1916 by Arthur B. Modine, who was on a mission to make the perfect radiator. In fact, the Modine company manufactured the turbo tube radiator for Ford Model T cars. So, from the Model T to EVs, Modine has innovated through it all, and has been manufacturing in Tennessee since 1979.

In our conversation, we dive into Modine’s rich legacy of innovation. Why thermal management is so critical for electrification and Modine’s work in Tennessee from workforce development to ushering in a zero-emissions mobility future. If you want to learn about Tennessee’s EV sector, this is one conversation you won’t want to miss.

And as always, if you like what you hear, don’t forget to leave a rating or review. It helps us reach an even wider audience to champion Tennessee’s advanced energy sector.

Energizing Tennessee would not be possible without the support of TAEBC members and our sponsor, FirstBank. To learn more about FirstBank and how they can support you or your business, visit firstbankonline.com.

Gina Bonini, Vice President and General Manager of Advanced Thermal Systems at Modine, thanks for coming on the show.

Gina Bonini: Well, thanks for having me, Cortney. I’m excited to be here.

Cortney Piper: We know Modine is a U.S. company. You all have more than a century legacy in thermal management. Can you give us the SparkNotes version of the company and the problems you’re solving?

Gina Bonini: Absolutely. As you mentioned, we’re a U.S.-based company. So, we were formed in 1916 by our namesake, Arthur B. Modine. Arthur, Mr. Modine was a very innovative and unique problem solver. He set out to create the best possible radiator out in the market. I’d say he succeeded. We started providing radiators for the Model T Ford in 1925.

So, since then, we’ve continued to expand. We’re now today over a $2 billion diversified industrial. We do heating and cooling for a range of different industrial and commercial applications. Including data centers and industrial refrigeration, we provide solutions for schools. As well as heating systems for warehouses in large-scale manufacturing.

There’s also my side of the company where we provide heat transfer products for a range of different vehicles and some stationary applications. My team is the advanced thermal systems team. We’re focused on commercial and specialty vehicles that are transitioning to zero-emission mobility. So, think electric vehicles and fuel cell.

We do all the big trucks and buses. We work on fire trucks, cement mixers, refuse trucks. It’s kind of a kick to go visit our customers and see the different vehicles that we’re part of. So, it’s been quite the journey.

Cortney Piper: I would love to see those. And you know, our Tennessee governor has said he wants to make Tennessee the number one state in the country for the electric vehicle supply chain.

And you mentioned thermal management. We know that’s a big deal as we transition to electric vehicles. In simple terms, can you explain to our listeners what automotive thermal management is?

Gina Bonini: So, thermal management is a critical topic for both internal combustion engines, so your traditional gas-fueled vehicles, as well as electric vehicles.

And probably just the best example of it would be the radiator on your car. So, those of us that have been around for a couple of decades remember overheating vehicles. In fact it was two summers ago, I was on vacation in Oregon and we had a massive heat wave. It was 115 degrees Fahrenheit, which just doesn’t happen in part of the country.

And I was driving up a mountain pass and my car started to overheat. Now I haven’t dealt with an overheating car since I started getting a paycheck, and I could upgrade my vehicle. So, the car, just started to slow down and ultimately I had to pull over. If I kept driving, I would have destroyed my engine.

Instead, I had to wait around for several hours for the engine to cool down, for the temperature to cool down, so I could finish driving over that mountain pass. That was a failing thermal management system. So, if you don’t have the right thermal management system, you’ll damage your vehicle, or your vehicle just will not operate at its best performance.

And that’s true for both internal combustions and EVs.

Cortney Piper: And that’s where I was going. So, this is a challenge to solve with, like you said, both the internal combustion and the electric vehicles, but what are the thermal management challenges specifically related to commercial EVs?

Gina Bonini: There’s two major areas that we focus on a commercial vehicle. So, when I say commercial vehicle, I mean bus and truck and last-mile delivery vans, fire trucks, etc… It’s really the battery thermal management system. So EVs ultimately are fueled by a battery pack. And that battery pack needs to be contained within or maintained within a very narrow temperature window.

So going from about 77 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, that’s a very narrow window in a vehicle. To put this in perspective, an internal combustion engine, when it’s burning fuel, it operates at 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit. So now we’re trying to maintain these battery packs down within an 18-to-20-degree window.

So, the reason for that is if the battery pack becomes too hot or too cold, it can be permanently degraded. If it’s not maintained at an ideal temperature, it won’t have the best possible range. You’ll see a degradation in the range. And that really means how far can the vehicle travel on one battery charge.

So, you really want maximum range, and you want maximum longevity of the vehicle. And that’s where thermal management for the battery pack comes in. The other areas are the power electronics, the traction motor, the converter, inverter, the onboard charger, as they’re charging and then discharging during vehicle operation, they also heat up and if not properly maintained, they’ll degrade or be destroyed.

So thermal management is about maximizing and optimizing vehicle performance and avoiding damage to the vehicle.

Cortney Piper: Okay, well, then the next logical question is, how does Modine’s technology help make commercial EVs viable in severe environments? And I’m also thinking of things like heavy-duty trucks when they’re in extreme temperatures or really dirty worksites.

Gina Bonini: I’ll say, we started working with our customers back in 2018 as we started to see those first projects starting on electrified vehicles, and it became evident pretty quickly that the problems to solve for EV are different than what you see in traditional ICE vehicles, and that’s when my team started working very closely with our vehicular customers to design our thermal management system.

So, fast forward to May of last year, so May of 2022, we launched our EVantage thermal management system line, which is manufactured in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. So ultimately that EVantage line of products is designed for commercial vehicles. And so, what we see with commercial vehicles, the battery packs are lithium-ion batteries.

Similar to your phone, but much, much bigger. And if you’ve ever taken your phone and put it out in direct sunlight or tried to use it in very cold weather, it doesn’t work very well. So ultimately without the right thermal management to both maintain the temperature, whether it’s too hot or too cold, that battery pack will not operate as intended.

So really, what we’re focused on in the commercial vehicle space is making sure that no matter what the size of the vehicle or how far it needs to travel, because commercial vehicles have very large battery systems or what kind of torque, they have to apply to carry their load, that the proper temperatures are maintained both in the battery pack in the power electronics.

So, it’s different than the automotive space, passenger auto, where it’s smaller battery packs, less of a load on the vehicle. The other thing I’ll say is some of our applications are dirty. You can imagine a street sweeper or construction off-highway machines like construction and agriculture. They’re in very dirty environments.

We also have some specialized and proprietary heat exchangers that we’ll use for those applications to prevent dirt intrusion. You really don’t want your heat exchanger clogging because that’ll ultimately destroy the system and ultimately ruin the temp thermal management for the vehicle.

Cortney Piper: I love this.

I love how this innovation and the manufacturing it’s in Tennessee. You all are in a more rural part of the state and rural economic development is huge priority for our governor, for our state legislature. So, you mentioned that Modine’s EV components are made at your facility in Lawrenceburg.

What drew Modine to open a manufacturing facility in Tennessee?

Gina Bonini: We actually started manufacturing as a company in 1979 in Lawrenceburg. So, we’ve been around for quite some time. And what drew us to Tennessee is if you look at where we’re situated in Lawrenceburg. We’re centrally located to our various vehicular customers in the southeast.

So, it’s a great location to be able to get product to our customers. Our product, as you might imagine with commercial vehicles, can be big. And big means shipping costs. So being centrally located is important. The other part is, near us, I think it’s an hour drive of Lawrenceburg, there’s two universities and a technical college.

We hire a lot of engineers, we hire a lot of technicians, and being able to have the workforce in the area is important. We’ve also found that the temperate climate and the small-town atmosphere helps us to attract people when we do need to relocate and bring in talent. And so, because we’ve been around since 1979, we’ve really developed a workforce that has that secret sauce for us.

Thermal management is as much art as it is science. And we now have a workforce that understands that and is able to make amazing products out of our Lawrenceburg facility. So, we’ve tapped into that and it’s an area that we continue to grow. Lawrenceburg for us has been a growth engine within the company.

Cortney Piper: And that’s fantastic. We at the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council have had the opportunity to get closer and closer to the Tennessee Board of Regents, which operates the technical college, the TCATs and our community colleges. And I’ve got to tell you, every time that we interact with them, it just, blows my mind because the ability, they’re just the way that they are able to respond to issues industry and business needs and in specific ways. So, you could say, Hey, I’m going to need a hundred people with this certification over the next three years, but I’m going to need you to tweak it a little bit to fit our manufacturing facility right here. They do it and it’s just such a great asset for Tennessee.

I’ve heard a lot of manufacturers and a lot of businesses talk about them. I’d like to give big kudos to the Tennessee Board of Regents and our TCATs and community colleges whenever we can. So, Gina, our governor has set this big goal of making Tennessee the number one state in the country for the electric vehicle supply chain.

We know that our big automakers have set goals for when they’re just going to not make internal combustion engines anymore. There are companies that move freight and logistic companies that have said, we’ve got decarbonization goals too. So, what is next for the Lawrenceburg plant? It seems like opportunities are endless.

Gina Bonini: Agree. Agree. So certainly, the EVadvantage thermal management systems in Lawrenceburg, we’ve been growing double digits the last couple years and it’s just ramping up. We recently doubled our manufacturing footprint. We continue to expand. I’ve doubled the workforce that we have within Lawrenceburg in the last two years, and we have more growth coming.

So, as we see this transition to zero-emission mobility, it’s an area that we’re well suited to service out of our Lawrenceburg facility and we’ll continue to grow as our customers see demand grow on their site and we continue to win more business. But what’s unique for Modine within Lawrenceburg, we have a second very high-growth business within the facility.

We also provide cooling modules for generators. So, we call it our Genset business. Anytime there’s critical infrastructure that needs uninterrupted power, like a data center, a hospital, an institution, or even hospitality, these large-scale generators are required in case there’s a power outage. We build the cooling modules for those, and we’ve been seeing growth in that as customer demand grows, and as we increase our share in the market.

Now, these generators are huge, and again, this is where producing in region so that the shipping costs are reduced is an important piece of it, and we found that our Lawrenceburg workforce is just uniquely suited to build both my advanced thermal systems, which requires a heavy amount of mechanical and electrical work, as well as our genset business that is , large scale manufacturing, so we’ve had a good success in building both of those business within our Lawrenceburg facility, and I will say we currently have over 25 open jobs.

So, we are continuing to look for more employees from welders and operators to office staff and engineers. We welcome anyone in the community who wants to reach out and see if we’re a good fit for them.

Cortney Piper: Absolutely. And Gina, it is our pleasure, the point of this podcast, the point of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council is to share these wonderful stories of manufacturers and businesses who are in Tennessee’s advanced energy economy and growing and evolving and thriving.

I am just so pleased that we had the opportunity to talk today and for you to share a little bit more about Modine.

Gina Bonini: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

Cortney Piper: All right, Gina. Well, thank you for coming on our show. Gina Bonini, Vice President and General Manager of Advanced Thermal Systems at Modine. Tell our listeners where they can learn more about you and your work.

Gina Bonini: For the EVantage Thermal Management Systems, we have our ModineEV, so one word, modineev.com website. You’ll find a blog; you’ll find all of our news releases and information about our products. We also have our Modine.com website, which will tell you more about the company, including All of our investor presentations that talks about our strategy and growth.

And if you’re looking for me personally, you’ll find me on LinkedIn.

Cortney Piper: Gina, thank you so much. I enjoyed our conversation.

Gina Bonini: All right. Thank you, Cortney.

Cortney Piper: And that’s our show. Thanks for tuning into Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re your No. 1 podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector.

If you like what you heard, please share it with others or leave a rating and review. To catch the latest episodes, Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t forget to follow TAEBC on social media or sign up for our newsletter to hear about our events or learn even more about Tennessee’s growing advanced energy economy.