Robots in action can be found everywhere. Robot Manufacturers give examples of robot applications in different industries.
Adept, Germany - IFR-Partner
Automating Solar Manufacturing: Taking Advantage of Lessons Learned
Solar Energy & Grid Parity
here's no doubt that the solar photovoltaic (PV) industry is hot. According to Solarbuzz, LLC an international solar energy research and consulting company, world solar photovoltaic (PV) market installations reached a record high of 2,826 megawatts (MW) in 2007, representing a growth of 62% over the previous year. World solar cell production reached a consolidated figure of 3,436 MW in 2007, up from 2,204 MW a year earlier. The PV industry raised nearly $10 billion in 2007 and generated $17.2 billion in global revenues in 2007. The U.S. has set 2015 as the goal to reach grid parity (that point where solar electricity is equal to grid electricity) while other nations predict reaching it as soon as 2010. Regardless it's clear there will be an exploding demand for PV electricity in the near future.
Top manufacturing executives in the solar industry are challenged to find the most effective tools and processes to gain more productivity and decrease costs within a set budget. This article addresses how the use of automation within this new industry can provide these top executives with the key components to maximize factory throughput, drive down costs and improve efficiencies.
Introduction Stage & Lessons Learned
As an industry considered to be in the introduction stage of its life cycle its manufacturers are now contemplating the next critical steps in their production processes to remain competitive and prepare for this demand. As stated above the key for these manufacturers will be driving down costs, maximizing factory throughput and improving efficiencies. Automating solar processes will be the solar manufacturer's first line of attack to accomplish this. Manufacturers will be wise to reap the benefits of experience from more mature industries that have been through the rapid growth associated with a developing and maturing product line. Industries such as the semiconductor, disk drive and flat-panel display industries have paved the way. Each has experienced extreme rapid growth and has used automation to attack the "Big Three" drivers: improving efficiencies, lowering costs and maximizing throughput.
Although there are many differences between solar and semiconductor manufacturing over all the processes are similar in that they manufacture sensitive wafers at their core. While semiconductor production requires very clean environments and single wafers can cost thousands of dollars, the solar industry does not require such stringent cleanrooms and a single wafer may cost $5. However, like the semiconductor industry which started out with small fabs & larger wafers then moving to larger fabs and smaller/thinner wafers the solar industry will also follow this progression. These similarities coupled with the Big Three drivers any growing industry faces are reasons enough for solar manufacturers to learn from the past. That past experience points to automation.
"We believe that the U.S. solar manufacturing environment today is very similar to that of the semiconductor and electronics environment of the '80s," says John Dulchinos CEO and president of Adept Technology a leading robotics manufacturer which recently announced its Adept Solaris line of robotic systems designed specifically for the solar industry. "During that time they began to make significant investments in automation, and thus realized a more aggressive curve in driving down costs. The solar industry is at a similar situation now."
Automating Solar Manufacturing
Although demand for solar products is rapidly increasing manufacturing solar panels is still more costly than producing electricity with fossil fuels, which is why governments provide economic incentives. However, availability of these incentives is tenuous and manufacturers preparing for the increase in demand are wise to consider all their options to lower costs.
Anton Milner CEO of Q-Cells, one of the world's largest manufacturers of PC cells based in Germany, recently stated during a CEO forum reducing costs at the Solar Power International show 2008 in San Diego, CA that "we believe that we can reduce current costs of cells over the next few years by 40 or 50 percent without even breaking a sweat". Dr. Milner went on to explain that half of the cost reduction they expect to get will come from technology development (meaning better chemistry and physics of the cells themselves). 25 percent will come from improvements in productivity and 25 percent from increasing economies of scale (growth begets better supply chain management, fixed costs will be a lower percentage of total costs of all the plants etc.). This statement that 25 percent will come from productivity bodes well for the prospects of using automation.
"Automation will provide manufacturers with the ability to increase yields and lower costs. Additionally, as solar manufacturers manufacture in larger plants automation will be a necessity," said Joachim Melis, General Manager of Adept Technology.
Throughput, Costs & Efficiency
The largest costs associated with manufacturing involve throughput, quality and labor. When trying to drive costs down manufacturers need to address material cost, overhead cost and labor cost. Automation addresses all three.
The most effective way to lower you overhead costs besides getting a much cheaper facility is to get much more throughput out of the same amount of facility space. If you have a fixed expense and drive twice as much through the same amount of space it effectively cuts your overhead cost in half. The fundamental value of automation and robotics to any production line is the ability to produce a much larger volume in the same amount of floor space.
The best way for manufacturers to lower material costs is to have very efficient processes with very little scrap material. Ideally you want to stop producing bad parts but if you do produce them at any point in the process find that point and resolve the issue before the product continues through the rest of the process. Basically weed out that process or step that is causing the bad part. Automation affects throughput and material costs in that they do a better job of handling products than manual labor. Robots have less handling defects in the process and reduce scrap due to handling errors. With inspection technologies, using vision as an example, manufacturers can inspect a product at each step of the process and verify that the part is worth allowing it to go to the next process steps. This technology allows manufacturers to catch bad product and analyze the process.
Automation allows for the production of better quality products at a faster rate while lowering overall fixed costs and material costs. Robotic handling with vision inspection is more consistent than manual labor. For example automated vision inspection applies the exact same vision criteria each and every time whereas manual labor tends to have a lot of variability in the inspection process. Manual labor is inconsistent as no two human operators are the same. One person may have a less discriminating eye than another. Vision can use both infrared and standard wavelength for inspections. Today around 35 percent of all the robotics systems Adept Technology supplies have integrated image processing for inspection and guidance. Coupled with the decrease in the price of robots and increase in cost of labor automation inspection proves to be faster and more consistent and will serve the solar industry well.
Robot vs. Manual Labor Cost
Automation Opportunities in Solar Manufacturing
Some examples of various steps in the solar manufacturing process that will benefit from automation include but certainly are not limited to wafer handling between the process steps, box/tray/boat loading & unloading, and vision guided conveyor loading & unloading. Each benefits from the automation process by virtue of automation's speed, accuracy and efficiency. One such application is a cell being used in an inspection system to load and unload inspection machines that are also sorters that will grade the cells and then sort them into different bins. Another application example is a cell using robotics to transfer cassettes containing solar wafers to a machine where a process occurs, such as putting an anti reflective coating on the cells, and then the robots transfer the completed product to conveyors in trays or boats to be sent to the next step or process machine. The obvious advantage being again speed, accuracy, efficiency and the ability to work 24/7 if need be. Additionally, certain processes produce cells that are 150 degrees Celsius making automation the only way to handle them without the need to wait for a cool down allowing manual manipulation.
An AdeptSight image processing system controls several Adept Quattro s650 robots handling solar cells (Source: Adept Technology GmbH, Dortmund)
Robots are being utilized now within the solar industry such as Adept Technology' robots currently handling, inspecting and sorting solar cells in all the steps in the process at several leading solar manufacturer's facilities. The robots are doing a faster job of transferring solar cells from one process to the next. With advanced computer algorithms and gripper technology robots are able handle the delicate job of handling solar cells more reliably and consistently than people can. Because of that it allows the cells to be transferred more quickly from step to step with less breakage. As solar manufacturer's move to thinner and thinner silicon solar cells they will require even more delicate handling because these cells will be more fragile and brittle. The difference between a 150 micron solar cell compared to a 300 micron thick cell is substantial and automating this process will be vital.
Two Adept Quattro s650 robotics systems in a cell handling solar wafers (Source: SLS Solar Line Saxony GmbH, Limbach-Oberfrohna)
The AdeptSight image processing system is used not only for flexible guidance but also for monitoring the quality of the solar cells.(Source: MONDRAGON Assembly Spain)
Manufacturers in the know understand that the only way that they can be competitive in the global economy is by automating which allows them to maximize throughput in the factory, lower scrap rate and reduce labor costs. A typical robot cell can process approximately 45-75 solar cells a minute significantly faster than a manual process. A typical robot solar handling cell will range from $100,000 to $200,000 which considering the cost of paying and maintaining multiple employees to do the same job is extremely cost effective and a good return on investment.
Taking a lesson from previous industries that adopted automation is a good bet for solar manufacturers. One company that agrees is Adept Technology who recently introduced the Adept Solaris product line of automation solutions which was designed and optimized specifically for the solar industry. The product line consists of SCARA and parallel robots, controls, vision and software. Particularly well suited for solar applications is the company's Adept Quattro s650H parallel robot with vision which allows manufacturers to handle and inspect at a very fast rate of speed. The robot shape, the way it mounts & the size of the work envelope is ideal for solar cell machine loading and unloading. Just one example of the company's line of solar offerings.
State of the art technology using vision guidance for fast, precise motion will be vital for manufacturers of solar wafers and solar cells, as they adopt new manufacturing equipment to maximize production throughput. Automation will be key to reaching grid parity.
Using SCARA robots in the photovoltaic industry makes sense when speed an extremely accurate positioning of wafers and cells are required (Source: Teamtechnik, Germany)