First Solar, a company that is based in the United States and makes solar panels, is making a financial comeback after losing ground to competition in China through automating their production plant. While First Solar admits that this has meant some layoffs, they say that the jobs that remain are better and more safe. There is an interesting article on the BloombergBusinessweek website about the situation.
Although the company is headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, it has its primary manufacturing plant in Toledo, Ohio. A year ago, the company was unable to keep up with its Chinese rivals, primarily because labor costs are much cheaper in China, and was at risk of bankruptcy. They made the decision to replace most of the human workers in the Toledo plant with robots, and this paid off for the company. Additionally, they began spraying the sun-absorbing metal compound cadmium telluride on their panels; figuring out how to do this took the company’s engineers decades, but gave First Solar an enormous competitive edge.
When visitors saw the newly automated plant, which reopened last December, many were shocked to see the vast factory floor without the hundreds of workers who had been replaced by machines. However, almost everyone has been impressed by how smoothly the new robots are able to move the panels through the manufacturing process over the roughly three miles of factory space. Robots clean, grind and spray the emerging panels and finally place them into boxes for delivery.
First Solar has patented the process, which only takes three hours to produce a panel. With the human workers, it took three days. The current panels are also larger than the previous ones and work better in humid and dim conditions.
Up to about ten years ago, First Solar was the world’s leader in manufacturing solar panels before falling behind the Chinese. Now, thanks to their automation and use of cadmium telluride, they’re ahead again for at least for a few years. Their progress comes at the cost, however, of the factory employees they no longer need.