Orbiting the Sun: Ohio’s ATS Automation Brings Brains, Brawn to First Solar’s Manufacturing Lines
Posted 18 November 2012 10:00 PM by Tom Cheyney
Part 8 in a series: First Solar spends more than $1 billion annually with over 1,000 U.S. suppliers across 35 states. In this ongoing series, we will explore the inspiring stories of companies growing in partnership with us.
One key to First Solar’s manufacturing success is its ability to fully process its thin-film photovoltaic panels in a matter of hours, with very high yields at a cost below that of competing technologies. Engineered glass enters a fully automated production system and runs through a series of deposition, thermal, etching, and cleaning steps that create a thin layer of photoactive semiconductor materials sandwiched between two pieces of glass. The panel then moves into the back-end assembly area, where adhesives are dispensed, lamination performed, junction boxes and other components attached, and final testing conducted. When completed, the now-operational energy-generating devices are binned and sorted, then picked up and placed by brawny industrial robots into shipping containers.
Although the scientists, engineers and technicians at First Solar devised many of the innovations found in the company’s production lines, equipment suppliers like ATS Automation have played major roles in developing and building out some of the most advanced manufacturing facilities in the solar industry.
ATS has worked with First Solar since the mid-2000s, when the PV firm was setting up its first factory in Perrysburg, Ohio, according to Dave Kelly, the factory automation company’s global account manager for solar who works out of ATS’s Lewis Center site, near Columbus, Ohio. “We do everything, all the automation, after the panel leaves the laminator, 100%, in all their factories,” he notes. “We’ve leveraged knowledge from our work in the automotive industry as well as other solar applications that we’ve done to adapt material handling processes to work with their operations.”
“First Solar has been an extremely important part of what we’ve done,” explains Kelly. “There have been points during a very tumultuous economy over the past four years, that if it weren’t for First Solar, we’d have been hard-pressed to hang on to the manpower we have. They helped us bridge some tough times. We work closely with them, and look at it more like a partnership than a supplier-customer-type relationship. We’ve had to take some lumps along the way, but we’re happy to do that because we’ve shared in their successes as well.”
Kelly recounts ATS’s initial programs with First Solar, when his firm shepherded the early design of a sub-assembly system from concept to final execution, improving on it, then “validating the improvement of that process.” Like the rest of the ATS suite of equipment, the sub-assembly process became standard throughout the First Solar manufacturing enterprise.
Following that initial success, ATS began with what was considered a “radical idea”—a fully automated “sortation” system using six-axis robots—and turned it into a platform that “took the results of the manufacturing process, and completely sorted and loaded the panels [by their power rating] into the binning containers,” a procedure that was previously done manually, with lots of potential for accidents and human error. “Health and safety are what drove that process, and the benefit was a fully automated process that guaranteed an absolutely perfect sortation system,” Kelly says of the equipment.
Other areas mentioned by Kelly where ATS has provided its world-class expertise include a nearly defect-free soldering approach that dramatically reduces the reject and scrap rate, a fully automated testing scheme that uses statistical process control to ensure that the manufacturing process is functioning properly, and a highly proprietary analytical/process enhancement method that helps drive up panel efficiencies.
The ripple effect of First Solar’s equipment and material production needs continues down through ATS’s own well-developed regional supply chain—and the job creation and investments that have been made there. Kelly cites examples of Ohio companies that have provided a variety of components and materials, such as programmable logic and other electronic control devices, sensors, aluminum extrusions, and small subassemblies, as well as local machine shops that have contributed to the automation systems.
Contributor Tom Cheyney is Chief Curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs' solar practice. He is the former Senior Editor of PV-Tech.org/Photovoltaics International.