Robots rule at Silicon Valley solar factory

December 9, 2010

Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar module maker, took some heat in November when it decided to close a factory, lay off workers and delay expansion of a new manufacturing plant that was built with a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee.

In making the move seven weeks after opening the new factory, called Fab 2, the company cited the need to rein in capital expenditures in the face of aggressive competition from low-cost Chinese manufacturers.

Still, the $733 million plant is up and running and Solyndra this week released a video of the automated factory. It’s obviously a commercial for the company but the video also shows how in the long run U.S. companies may be able to compete against China in the global market.

Fab 2’s robots outnumber workers of the flesh-and-blood variety. Driverless carts and automated cranes shuffle photovoltaic parts across the 300,000 square-foot factory, handing them off to large orange robots that look like the machines in the Terminator movies.

The robots feed long glass cylinders into large devices that coat them with advanced thin-film photovoltaic materials. Other robots assemble the tubes into solar panels before they’re loaded onto trucks to be shipped to customers who will install them on large commercial rooftops.

“A lot of capital has gone into the factories but once they’re running our labor costs are quite low and allow us to operate here,” Bob Bierman, Solyndra’s executive vice president for operations and engineering, told me when I visited Fab 1 and Fab 2 in September.

Bierman estimates that Solyndra’s labor costs are three times those of its Chinese competitors, but notes that his company is using far fewer workers.

In the end, labor probably accounts for 10 percent of total costs for both Solyndra and Chinese companies, he said as an “automated guided vehicle,” or AGV, buzzed by carrying a tray of glass tubes tagged with a radio transmitter that communicate with the computer that runs the factory. When the tray signals it is empty, the cart is dispatched to another task, guided by magnets embedded in the factory floor.

“The Secret Service wasn’t a big fan of the robots,” noted Bierman, recalling President Obama’s visit to Solyndra in May.

(No doubt the Secret Service agents were having Terminator thoughts when the Terminator himself, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, joined Obama to see Solyndra’s robots. In fact, a particularly explosive scene from the second Terminator movie was filmed two miles from the company’s headquarters in Fremont, Calif.)

But if Solyndra can keep cutting the cost of producing its panels while ramping up manufacturing, those robots could be key to its competitiveness.

With the Chinese increasingly moving into the U.S. market, Solyndra has accelerated development of its next-generation solar panels, designed to snap together like Legos. That reduces installation costs, as fewer workers are needed to build solar arrays on rooftops. That’s critical because Solyndra’s cutting-edge thin-film panels are more expensive to manufacture than the conventional crystalline silicon modules made by Chinese companies.

Who knows, maybe robots will even do such work one day.

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