Analog Electronics Politics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Solar Automation and Micro-Factories

I have a friend who alerted me to a company out in New Mexico known as Solar Automation. They don’t make solar panels; rather, they make the equipment to make solar panel arrays. However, what I find most intriguing about the company is their concept of Micro-Factories. In the case of Solar Automation, the basic idea is that a small team of people are capable of creating solar arrays by soldering the tiny wires with non-lead solder. This same concept could be expanded to many other applications, including mechanical or auto assembly, textiles, food preparation (already done at caterers, really).

Although it exists on a slightly larger scale, China epitomizes the Micro-Factory model. They have large labor pools using simple equipment to make incrementally more complex equipment. One example might be a board house that hand assembles and solders through-hole part boards. This could instead be done in a large facility with automation on expensive equipment. However, the cost for the equipment would likely mandate a large overall throughput for the factory in order to justify the cost of the equipment. Conversely, a smaller hand soldering operation could easily scale the number of people required to make an order of boards. As for energy savings, there can be higher efficiency with a laborer using a low wattage soldering iron as compared to heating lamps or continuously heating a wave solder machine.

The pivotal point in this argument is whether or not the end product requires increasing complexity in the machines that construct it. Solar is a good example. The panels themselves are not particularly complex, mostly they are tons and tons of PN junctions that convert incident light into flowing electrons. However, the chemicals and the semiconductor processing equipment is very complex.

So what are the benefits of Micro-Factories?

  1. Local workforce – With the exception of a privileged few (non-whiners), no one will contend that the US and the world economy is hitting some tough times. Local jobs are outsourced or cut outright. Mom and pop shop workers are now greeters at WalMart. Why not instead allow lower education workers have a job creating something useful for society and the environment, rather than peddling trinkets made 6000 miles away? Added bonus: Your workers do not have to travel from far away to work, thereby cutting down on costs and emissions.
  2. Simple training – Training is not cheap. If you ask people at Samsung, I was training for roughly a year and a half to do my job (and promptly left for a new one). It takes times to get into the swing of things at companies, no matter the task. Why not make the task simpler? The Solar Automation takes a complicated end process and allows simple training to quickly begin.
  3. Built in quality control (eyes) – While this would hinge on the enthusiasm of the workers (and therefore dependent on myriad other factors), it’s a fact that most computers do not notice something innately wrong with a process. Most people will notice if a solar panel is discolored or if a wire is hanging off where it’s supposed to be connected. Until the day when computers are smarter than humans (and cheaper), people will implement a natural form of quality control.

What are the drawbacks, you ask?

  1. If you give a mouse a cookie (cutter job), he’s going to want benefits – My own views about benefits and healthcare aside, it’s a fact that people expect some form of benefits, most easily represented in business as overhead. It expands beyond healthcare and such (think tables and chairs and other things that people expect from jobs), so you might have to label the job as “an alternative workplace” where compensation is higher (in the event you don’t want to/have to provide benefits). Doesn’t mean you can’t have a productive workplace though.
  2. In the solar example, there are still high material costs (the actual solar cells), so the margins will be squeezed. In general, assembly jobs are meant to be high volume, low margin endeavors, so there are risks when material costs rise; doubly so if your revenues are stagnant (because of contracts or otherwise).
  3. Sometimes it’s still cheaper to ship repetitive jobs overseas or automate a process. That’s all there is to it.

Micro-Factories could be a great way to increase employment, mobilize a stagnant workforce and help cut down on emmissions. I would highly suggest you check out the Solar Automation page and leave comments on other places you have seen similar ideas implemented.