First Solar Is Using Robots to Better Tap the Sun

Chris Martin for Bloomberg Business Week:  A year ago, First Solar Inc.’s future looked uncertain. Deeply underpriced by a string of Chinese competitors, the Tempe, Ariz., maker of solar panels laid off hundreds of workers, sold equipment, and shut down its factory on the outskirts of Toledo, its only one in the U.S., as it prepared to gut and remodel the place. That last move, however, has paid off.

The Ohio plant has been reborn as an almost fully automated operation, daily churning out hundreds of solar panels for a fraction of what it costs rivals to make them. The secret: supersize panels made with cadmium telluride, an energy-absorbing metal compound that First Solar engineers figured out how to spray on glass sheets in a thin film. First Solar invested more than $1 billion in researching and developing the cad-tel spray over the course of two decades. Its success upended the business of solar panel production even before the Trump administration announced tariffs on overseas solar hardware on Jan. 22.

Early in the plant renovation process, “when I first saw that empty factory floor, my heart sank,” Chief Executive Officer Mark Widmar recalls. He was unsure the automation would pay off. “I thought, What have we done? But we’re now in a better competitive position than ever.”  Full Article:

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