Five Ways MES Improves Solar Manufacturing and Lowers Costs
As solar fabs expand and leverage their scale and manufacturing capacity, one of the major challenges manufacturers face is achieving greater operational efficiency to lower costs. Implementing productivity and manufacturing efficiency programs can help. I’ve met with several solar manufacturers from around the globe and have seen firsthand how they use and benefit from these types of programs.
Here I’ve listed five key learning’s around how one type of efficiency tool Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES)-- is helping optimize operations to lower costs.
1. Virtual Factory Management with Single MES: Solar manufacturers want a single MES that can manage their large facility as one virtual factory so all manufacturing lines are viewed as a whole unit as opposed to separate distinct lines. This helps operation managers fully optimize their manufacturing capacity and re-route materials as needed when a tool is down, avoiding an idle line and lost revenue.
2. Small- to Enterprise-Wide Deployments: Most solar manufacturers that start with a small MES deployment quickly realize the benefits for one factory and expand to others. Using this approach, manufacturers learn what works for their specific manufacturing processes, process types and operational policies. And when the MES has the ability to connect multiple factories together, a manufacturer has complete visibility across their entire factory enterprise.
3. Link Manufacturing and Process Control Systems: In addition to work-in-process (WIP) tracking, solar manufacturers are finding that process monitoring and process control are critical to improving operational efficiency. Therefore, manufacturing and process control systems must be linked together. The biggest benefit of this approach is that the manufacturer has a real traceability system, which provides data to understand root cause of quality problems. Now, manufacturers can diagnose quality problems and prevent future occurrences.
4. Managers Like Factory Dashboards. Managers love data in a useable form to make important factory decisions. Equipment and process data gathered from the factory floor is monitored and put into a user friendly dashboard. This powerful tool helps managers ensure that the factory is running at full utilization, resulting in a profitable factory and lower cost per watt for solar power consumers.
5. Speed. All manufacturers need their MES deployments to happen quickly - within 3 months or less. Manufacturers are discovering that the only way this will happen is with out-of-the-box functionality specifically designed for solar manufacturing. A ready-to-go solution also reduces cost of deployment and cost of ownership.
What’s Next for MES Solutions?
In the short-term some solar manufacturers will continue to use custom MES solutions created by small, local providers. This approach is problematic from the beginning since most local suppliers are not MES experts with years of experience configuring and optimizing WIP tracking and tracing systems. Additionally, smaller suppliers rarely have the resources and experience required to develop longer-term product visions and may not have deep understanding of the solar production equipment.
For example, one emerging strategy is virtual wafer tracking synchronized with hardware wafer tracking technologies. Both of these methods allow very precise and detailed information to be collected on a single wafer, not at a batch or lot level. This is one area Applied Materials is already exploring to advance state-of-the-art solar manufacturing. We also have equipment-level software technology and capability. This coupled with our connection to the teams developing and supporting the process tools and our deep understanding of how to deploy MES systems for complex manufacturing makes Applied Materials the partner of choice for improving solar manufacturing capability from the start.
I was at EUPVSEC in Hamburg, Germany, in September and presented a poster on many of the issues discussed in this blog, and will continue to present at future events. I will share more information about upcoming events through this blog.
I’m interested in hearing from you on automation in solar manufacturing, including topics you’d like to learn about. Leave your comment below and thanks for reading. I look forward to starting a dialogue.