A forklift rolls across the fitted carpet and places a pallet of boxes precisely in the right spot marked with adhesive tape. The old open-plan office from the 1970s serves as an interim warehouse for hardware deliveries. The former start-up has just moved here from the small 18-square-meter site where it was founded. The moving boxes haven’t all been unpacked yet; only the essentials are set up: workstations, coffee machine, ping-pong table. It seems that the team doesn’t want to get too comfortable anyway.
«Nothing’s perfect,» says Marco Mangani. «If something bothers us, we try to improve it as quickly as possible.» Production of the charging stations has been automated. The internal technology has been modified. The design has been optimized. The co-founder and CTO of Zaptec Schweiz regularly sends feedback to the parent company in Norway in order to improve the product continuously. «Sometimes they appreciate it, sometimes they don’t,» he says with a grin.
The perfect moment, however, was when Mangani, together with partner Florian Kienzle, chose self-employment and fully devoted himself to electric mobility. «I told my wife: The train’s leaving the station now. And I have to get on board right here. Otherwise, I’ll regret it.» In the past three years, Zaptec has sold 120,000 charging stations across Europe. And the prospects are still looking good. Last year, 40,000 purely electric passenger vehicles were registered for the first time in Switzerland. At 18 per cent, their market share is still manageable overall, but the trend is showing a steep increase.
Zaptec opted for the cloud early on
The charging-station business doesn’t just run by itself. The fact that Zaptec is riding a wave of success also has to do with the fact that they are literally thinking «out of the box». «We look where others don’t,» says Mangani. For example, the cloud was used right from the early days, which opened up lots of possibilities for the company in the IoT area. IoT and the cloud allow Zaptec to merge all their data in the cloud. «A few years ago, many companies thought this was unnecessary.» Many manufacturers still operated without the cloud.
IoT technology makes it possible to increase the number of charging stations connected to the power grid and the Internet as needed. This offers the decisive advantage that investments in charging infrastructure are made at the right time and not just a priori. For example, if a company plans to purchase ten electric cars gradually over the next few years, Zaptec can already set up the infrastructure now. However, the charging stations don’t have to be installed until the corresponding vehicles have been bought.
Depending on how many users plan to charge at the same time, the available power is dynamically and securely distributed to the smart charging stations. The charging infrastructure ensures that overloading is avoided.
Another area where customers enjoy genuine added value is billing. IoT-capable charging stations can record the power consumption of the individual charging points in real time and forward the data to a central system. This allows for precise consumption monitoring and billing, without having to read the meters in person.
IoT also brings crucial advantages for remote monitoring and maintenance. «If the device is connected and online, we can resolve 80 percent of support cases by remote maintenance,» says Mangani. Of course, this is also very appealing in terms of costs.
«Connectivity plays a crucial role.» The system relies on the fact that every charging station can communicate with the cloud, which makes it important for the connection to have a high degree of availability. Nonetheless, the infrastructure continues to work seamlessly even in offline mode. In such a case, the system simply keeps storing the data, for example, how much electricity is being used. And as soon as the connection has been established again, the data are updated.
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Will we also see Zaptec charging stations at service areas in the future? «We’ve focused on buildings since the beginning and not on public charging,» says Mangani. «It was clear to us: Anyone who buys a car will be charging it at home overnight. It’s the same principle as mobile phones. It must be possible to charge your vehicle at home, otherwise the majority of people won’t buy an electric car.»
Zaptec’s vision is to make the world a better place by creating a more sustainable, electric future. When asked how he responds to criticism that the actual environmental impact of electromobility depends on how the electricity is generated, he says: «The energy footprint of electric cars over their life cycle is significantly more positive than that of internal combustion vehicles. We therefore believe that electromobility can make a major contribution to decarbonization. Of course, this is reasonable if the electricity is produced sustainably, for example with the company's own photovoltaic system. All in all, the electric car is significantly better off than the combustion engine over its entire life cycle.»
So is the trend towards electric mobility set to continue unchecked? There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this is the case. The EU climate package foresees a complete ban on internal-combustion engines from 2035. It seems ironic that the floor above Zaptec is home to an oil company with over 150 years of tradition. Who knows, maybe there will soon be some free space up there for Zaptec’s next expansion.