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Opportunities in Solar for the Industrial Automation Ecosystem

How investments drive demand for automation integrators, machine builders and component suppliers.

Panel
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In a recent report by the American Clean Power Association [1], in the past 12 months over $270 billion capital investments in utility-scale clean energy projects and manufacturing facilities have been announced. Eighty-three new clean energy manufacturing facilities or facility expansions have been announced by multiple PV panel manufacturers. Companies such as Enel, Enphase Energy, First Solar and Hanwha Q Cells, just to name a few, have stated intentions to grow their domestic manufacturing square footage.

Many of these announcements came on the heels of the landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of August 2022, which may have served as the tipping point as suggested by Harrison Godfrey, managing director for Advanced Energy United [2]. Analysis by management consulting firms McKinsey [3] and LEK [4], suggest that $47-55B is ear-marked for clean energy and manufacturing. 

But as it relates to automation integrators, machine builders and suppliers of system components, how might these announcements create opportunities? 

Irrespective of the type of photovoltaic cell (i.e., crystalline silicon, thin film, etc.) to be fabricated in the facilities related to these announcements, benefits from investments in panel manufacturing capacity will be realized across the supply chain supporting the solar industry ecosystem. 

Discussed here are five solution spaces where automation integrators and component suppliers play a role.

Intra-facility logistics and material flows 

Like most assembly processes, material flows that support or supply the overall PV production are often suited for automated material handling solutions like autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs). For example, racks of glass coming inbound from a supplier can be delivered directly to the load stations. Or palletized crates of completed panels coming off the line can be transferred direct to the dock without the need for fork trucks to manage the flows. 

Conveyors & Controls Logic Programming

Throughout the photovoltaic cell production line, there is a high degree of automated material transfers. A major facility may have thousands of linear feet of various types of roller, belt or strand conveyors. Each of these systems, in turn, is outfitted with an array of sensors and I/O blocks. All of this hardware demands PLC programming and Controls expertise to enable the complex sortation, shuffling and coordination. 

Robotic Material Handling 

As the PV cells are conveyed through the build process, multiple robots are involved to facilitate material hand offs. Articulated robots are used for loading, unloading and for intra-station transfers of panel-sized parts. Delta and SCARA robots are utilized in high-speed pick and place transfers and sortation at the cell level. Cartesian shuttles and lifts can also be found throughout for moving substrates or other flat form factors. 

Machine Building and Supporting Equipment

Highly engineered equipment required for cell fabrication includes processes such as curing, washing, coating, drying, cutting, printing, dispensing and depositing. Each of these mission-critical machines and system must be designed, manufactured, validated and ultimately, maintained. Offline, applications common to many manufacturing environments such as banding or strapping cells or lifting devices and manipulators are also utilized to support the primary operations. 

Components

Common to all of the previously mentioned application areas are the components and input sub-assemblies needed to deploy the automation or build the equipment. Demand in this category will span a wide array of applications, from controls system components (e.g., PLCs, I/O blocks, etc.) to robotics system inputs like end of arm tooling and to machine or process-specific solutions such as lasers, nozzles, bearings, belts, rollers and so on. 

The solution set outlined above is by no means exhaustive, nor is it exclusive to solar cell fabrication and panel assembly processes. Parallels can be drawn to each of the ecosystems supporting other burgeoning verticals of green tech and renewable energy manufacturing and assembly operations. Factories supporting wind generation, grid components, transmission infrastructure or clean mobility solutions (i.e., battery electric vehicles and electrification of the power train) all create new opportunities for automated solution providers to add value. As investment across the clean tech landscape continues to grow, automation will increasingly play a role in helping drive efficiencies across these manufacturing processes and in helping these production environments achieve scale.

invioautomation.com

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Sources

1  “Clean Energy Investing in America.” American Clean Power Association, August 2023.

2  DiGangi, Diana. “First Solar brings US manufacturing investment to $4B after selling out of panels through 2025” Utility Dive, utilitydive.com. Accessed 1 February 2023

“The Inflation Reduction Act: Here’s what’s in it.” McKinsey & Company, Public Sector Practice,  October 2022.

4  “The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and Its Impact on Clean Tech.” LEK Consulting, Energy & Environment Practice, November 2022.

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