What robotics and automation ought to be


When talking about robotics and automation it is relevant to explain what that precisely means. It’s well known that when an industry approaches maturity, large-scale and flexible production is undoubtedly required. Companies also want to secure sustainability and profitability. One way to address this challenge and to move towards these goals is to consider, in a holistic way, manufacturing processes and how they can be designed and implemented. This, in turn, depends on how robotics and automation have to be organized.
Automation encompasses the use of machines and technology to make processes run on their own, without manpower. However, modern automation can be much more complex. Computers are additionally used to control particular processes in order to increase reliability and efficiency.
Analyzing how PV manufacturing lines have been configured, in some cases, addresses whether robotics and automation is doing the job required of it and at the right place. Observations and analyses do raise questions about the cost of floor space in relation to sellable product – cost of goods sold (COGS). The PV industry expects reductions of floor space by 45 percent by 2020, at higher yield and throughput levels (SEMI PV Group – ITRPV).
When planning a factory, overall logistics have to be integrated with all incoming and outgoing materials and product. Good factory planning starts with designing the typical logistical requirements right down to the location of fab and the organization of the individual stages of production.
Certainly once building integrated PV (BIPV) takes off, flexibility will also become an important factor, as product variation increases.
In planning a factory, five main approaches can be distinguished: 1. The system approach: This approach considers all interdependencies between individual locations, production and logistical processes in manufacturing plants. Because of this, sub-optimized, insular solutions for logistics can be avoided.
2. The production flow approach: This approach considers the flow of materials, information and employees (labor and staff), including energy and the monetary flow like working capital.
3. Total cost approach: In this approach, all the relevant costs for logistics become an integrated management basis for decision making. This means that, for example, the costs for transportation, warehousing and the costs for inventory do not “disappear” in the combined margins.
4. The quality approach: The target here is to configure manufacturing and logistical processes in such a way that defects and modules that do not pass quality controls, as well as the causes for such events, can be recognized at the earliest possible juncture. This can occur before manufacturing or at least during the manufacturing process.
5. The service approach: This approach considers costs for logistics as justified, when these costs are, for example, due to optimized delivery times.
Because of such a holistic approach to planning factories and their specific logistics, we can avoid isolated solutions and simultaneously optimize value creation processes, optimized material and information flow. This finally supports, in a sustainable manner, the overall company targets.
Depending on which approach is opted for, the organization of automation and robotics will be different, as will the investment level required.
In today’s PV industry, overcapacity is frequently cited to explain negative financial results. The question begs as to whether this is simply the case or whether a share of the manufactured products cannot be sold due to poor quality. Inflexibility in manufacturing processes, in combination with inappropriate, non-bankable quality, is one reason for overcapacity. As such, this component of manufacturing must be adjusted as the industry experiences a period of consolidation.
Increased flexibility can be achieved by implementing intelligent buffering tools and processes with flexible cycle times. When configuring flexibility on line level with flexibility in overall cycle times, it becomes very important to align the processing tool cycle times versus uptime and downtime scenarios. Here the SEMI E10 offers a very good tool kit for these calculations.

Less space and capital

Beside the fact that up to 30 percent reductions in floor space can be gained through investments in higher robotics and automation processes, the capital investment per megawatt (MW) can also be reduced. Through cost of ownership assessments, it has been found that when doubling manufacturing capacity for a crystalline PV module line and upgrading such a line to a fully automated and holistically planned manufacturing plant, reductions of capital investment by approximately 23 percent per MW can be achieved.
Another noticeable effect in this context, is that flexible cycle times, in combination with high cycle time capability on a tool kit level (for example 20 seconds), allow the cost of ownership per MW per square meter (COO/MW/m2) to be reduced by approximately 30 percent. This occurs when increasing capacity; additional floor space is not required.
Unfortunately for the PV module manufacturing component of the industry, there does not seem to be a great awareness of these effects. It is more widely understood that the so-called mounting and assembly tasks have the biggest potential for rationalization. It is also known that, compared with cell manufacturing, the level of automation is rather low. Mostly PV module manufacturers only pay attention to this when aiming solely at cost reductions.
While robotics and automation do bring innovation and higher productivity, capital investment is required. The strong investment restraint the PV industry is currently faced with results in cost savings in the short term. However, this neglect of innovation will also weaken the PV market’s position in the midterm.


Green thinking is also smart thinking. Intelligent planned robotics and automation can deliver much better energy efficiencies. Reducing the impact on the environment often also results in cost savings, in particular when it comes to saving energy. In some industries, like the plastics industry, energy cost savings can be between 10 and 30 percent. In terms of glass cleaning and lamination processes, PV still has a number of issues to address. The reduction of waste is one of these issues. Incidentally, this is also one of the main benefits of working with robotics in combination with intelligent automation.
The most recent equipment sales figures clearly demonstrate which processes are attracting capital investment. As bankability impacts PV module manufacturing strategies, the recommendation must be that the PV industry invests in more cutting-edge robotics and automation solutions. Not only will capital expenditure gains be made, but also operational expenditures will improve as well. Making PV much more bankable is in itself a justification for investment in innovative robotics and automation. In short, if the potential savings are not big enough, bankability should justify the investment.

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