Advanced manufacturing facilities are key to a sustainable future
July 10, 2023
July 10, 2023
Solar panel, semiconductor, and EV battery factories are coming to North America. The best way to design them? An integrated approach.
A version of this blog appeared as “Making the must-haves for a sustainable future” in Design Quarterly, Issue 18.
Diversifying energy production is essential for the planet’s sustainable future. In the United States, this future depends on advanced technology often built on the other side of the world. As we have seen since the pandemic, the resiliency and reliability of the global supply chain is in question.
So, there’s a push to bring the technology closer to the end user. And expand our energy supply at the same time. Bringing the technology for energy transition closer to home will likely help meet demand for renewables and strengthen our economic security.
Today, when we are talk about advanced manufacturing, we’re thinking mostly about facilities that make three kinds of products: semiconductors, solar panels, and batteries for electric vehicles. What do these three industries have in common? They use complex robotic automation. They involve hazardous materials. They require wastewater mitigation. They need cleanroom space.
Investment in a domestic market for advanced manufacturing in North America is ramping up. There are several trends driving this.
1. Reshoring: Disruptions in the global economy have shown a lengthy supply chain can cause problems. Offshoring looks less enticing than ever for many manufacturers. As a result, there’s a trend toward bringing factories to North America, aka “reshoring.” In many cases, manufacturers want to make things closer to the places where consumers live rather than ship things across the globe.
2. Automation: Rapid advances in automation and robotics are changing the nature of manufacturing. Robotics and automated systems are driving a boom in North America. They can increase productivity and reduce reliance on some kinds of labor. High-tech manufacturing requires fewer workers. But they must be highly skilled. It also demands a large capital investment to get off the ground.
3. Incentives: In the past, regulations and high costs restrained new large-scale investment in manufacturing. But recent legislation has changed the equation. New tax incentives and tax deferrals are bringing manufacturing and job opportunities back to the US. The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America (CHIPs) Act authorized $24 billion in investment tax credits for chip manufacturers. And the Inflation Reduction Act offered tax credits to solar panel component manufacturers. The result is that companies with plans to build up domestic manufacturing capacity are swinging into action. In some cases, they’re enlarging the scale of their plans.
4. Demand: The US is playing catch-up to Europe. It’s behind in using electric vehicles, expanding energy sources, and employing solar power and electrification. Manufacturers see the US as a ready market for advanced manufacturing products. The US needs them to enable its energy transition.
5. Resources: Manufacturers know they can make these products in the US. Every single resource they need—the water, the energy, the land, the technical know-how—is available. For example, the US, has a robust supply of the high-purity quartz sand needed solar panel production.
The bottom-line result is new factories in North America.
Here’s a look at one. Qcells is investing $2.5 billion to build a new solar power manufacturing facility in Georgia near its existing 300,000-square-foot solar panel factory. The new facility will be the largest fully integrated solar manufacturing site in the nation. It plans to boost its solar production capacity from 1.7 gigawatts in 2022 to 8.4 gigawatts by 2024. In addition to boosting the nation’s renewable options, the facility will employ 2,500 workers.
Staying on schedule is always a priority. But the scale of investment in advanced manufacturing … require precise planning and execution to meet business goals.
The largest of these new manufacturing projects brings together many industrial processes under one roof. Qcells’ new facility, for example, combines four processes. It will house the entire solar panel manufacturing process. This includes ingot production, wafer processing, cell processing, and module production. Its massive assembly lines will transform quartz sand to polysilicon, produce finished solar panels, and ship them out. It will manufacture 3.3 gigawatts of these products annually.
Advanced manufacturing facilities face their own set of challenges. The best way to solve many of these is with an integrated design approach.
Day one operation: These complex, large-scale buildings tend to be fast-tracked projects. Staying on schedule is always a priority. But the scale of investment in advanced manufacturing, and its high operating costs, require precise planning and execution to meet business goals.
Opening on day one is key to their financial success. Thus, we need to design and procure materials and equipment at the same time to meet deadlines. That’s where an integrated design approach is especially beneficial.
Wastewater equipment and recycling: Advanced manufacturing facilities demand a lot of water and electricity. Many larger facilities need their own wastewater treatment. Some will need a facility to pretreat and offload their wastewater to a local wastewater facility and regional authorities. But another option for these facilities is water recycling. That's where it gets interesting. Wastewater recycling at the industrial scale requires advanced equipment. The plants need membranes that can strip out the chemicals in a complex process and deliver ultra-pure water. The scarcity and long lead times for this specialized equipment can delay a project.
An integrated wastewater team can provide more than standard services. It can draw on insights and formulate innovative solutions. At the core, the job of an integrated design team is to source alternative arrangements that will allow for procurement. At times, we can source alternative equipment in place of the hard-to-get pieces to stay on track.
Taking full advantage of automation: Korean, Taiwanese, and American manufacturers are opening and boosting operations in the US. They want to compete with China. And they are looking for ways to automate some of their manufacturing and finishing. They can benefit from integrated approaches to design and engineer these facilities to make them as efficient as possible.
Cleanrooms: Manufacturing and testing semiconductors is a delicate and exacting process. Standards are high.
Much of the fabrication process must take place in a cleanroom to ensure quality and functionality. The smallest speck of dust and dirt can wreak havoc on a microchip. Cleanrooms vary in process type, line width, and wafer size requirements. Cleanroom design for biotechnology laboratories, research facilities, and high-tech manufacturing is valuable experience on advanced manufacturing projects.
An integrated approach draws on internal experts from related markets and industries. When it comes to building advanced manufacturing facilities, we believe an integrated approach is powerful. It gives us the ability to tap into specialists who work in the science and tech industry. They know how to design systems to handle hazardous material and gases. It allows us to utilize our lab planners who design clean rooms. We can team up with our colleagues in wastewater management and power.
An integrated team is well suited to make these resource-hungry facilities as efficient, safe, and resilient as possible.