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Robots meet solar at Solyndra Fab 2

The futuristic Fab 2 integrates robotics manufacturing with 1,000 human workers to build unique solar modules. But can the high-tech expertise compete against cheap labor?

Robotics manufacturing tends to evoke visions of a John Henry-esque scenario in which competent women and men lose jobs to hunks of automated metal.

But in the case of Solyndra it may be robots that help American workers compete more effectively against China's low-cost labor force.

Solyndra solar cylinder
The cylindrical shape allows Solyndra's modules to collect sunlight in various forms. Solyndra

Consider the video that solar manufacturer Solyndra released this week illustrating how thin-film CIGS (copper, indium, gallium, and selenide) solar modules are produced.

In reality, the video (see below) is a showcase for the company's new state-of-the-art solar manufacturing plant, built with a $535 million federal loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, and $198 million in funding led by Argonaut Private Equity.

The futuristic Solyndra Fab 2 integrates robotics manufacturing with 1,000 human workers to build unique cylindrical solar modules. The thin-film panels are made of a series of tubes that facilitate the capture of direct, diffuse, and reflected sunlight, which maximizes efficiency while making rotation toward the sun throughout the day unnecessary, according to Solyndra.

Solyndra's video shows an impressive cadre of robots, with workers directing their automated partners from laptops or from touch screens mounted on walls. The narrator tells of RFID tags enabling parts to be traced and directed to where they need to go, special LED lights used to mimic solar rays in quality checks, and a manufacturing capacity that will eventually ramp up to 1 million solar modules a week.

But this Fab 2 showcase is not just a pitch for Solyndra. It's a pitch for American technology prowess.

President Obama used Solyndra as the backdrop for his "We've got to go back to making things" speech in May. The White House has also been holding the company up as a positive example of U.S. green tech and manufacturing innovation. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu were both present at Fab 2's groundbreaking ceremony.

It's also test case for whether America can still be competitive when it comes to manufacturing.

Solyndra makes thin-film flexible solar modules using CIGS cells, rather than silicon, as the absorbent layer. This alternative to traditional solar panels had an edge in the past because they were inexpensive to manufacture and install compared to silicon solar cells. But as China has ramped up its silicon solar production and the cost of manufacturing silicon solar cells has dropped, there has been a changing dynamic in the industry.

Solyndra announced in early November that it was closing its old manufacturing plant near Fab 2. The change resulted in 40 Solyndra employees being laid off and another 150 subcontractors not having their contracts renewed.

At the time, the company said that its old plant was simply not able to keep up with production at a competitive or cost-effective rate. Coincidentally, a month early Suntech, the Chinese thin-film solar manufacturer, had announced three key partnerships that many said would further redefine the economics of manufacturing.

The Fab 2 plant is much more efficient and will reduce production costs compared to its old facility, Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison has told The New York Times.

Only future financial reports from Solyndra will reveal whether Fab 2 and its team of robots and humans is really efficient enough to compete globally against both silicon solar and thin-film counterparts.