Factory’s attention to detail is the most exceptional I’ve ever seen
Written by: Gabriel Wondrausch

Whenever we look to start a relationship with a new manufacturer, meeting with the company’s people, in their own surroundings, is imperative. This allows us to ensure that our potential partner shares the same values as us, as well as allowing us to see their manufacturing processes firsthand. Timing is important, especially when the other company is the other side of the globe: too soon and the partnership may come to nothing, too late and you may discover unforeseen issues, which could de-rail the partnership once the wheels are already in motion.

BenQ Solar, Taiwan – a business trip with a difference

We have been in discussions with BenQ Solar for over six months.  I was keen to start negotiations when I discovered that BenQ are not only a manufacturing partner of SunPower, but that they share the technology and expertise for creating the world’s highest efficiency modules.

The main reason I chose to work in renewable energy is the increasingly real risks we face from climate change and so the decision to fly to BenQ’s headquarters in Taiwan, with the resulting CO2 emissions, was not an easy one.  It is always important for me to weigh up the net environmental benefits in CO2 savings, through the improved deployment of solar technology, with the initial emissions from a long-haul flight.

Having made the decision to visit BenQ, I considered what I needed to achieve from the visit. I was intrigued to discover that BenQ stands for “Bringing Enjoyment and Quality to Life” and was very keen to investigate whether the company could live up to this claim.

I concluded that the three key aims of my visit were:

  • Firstly, to discover BenQ’s  attitude towards the wellbeing of its employees and its environmental standards. It’s no good promoting UK renewables if you’re contributing to poor standards of employee welfare and to pollution on the other side of the planet!
  • Secondly, to evaluate the company’s manufacturing capacity, processes, equipment and quality control
  • Finally, as a general prerequisite, to ensure that the core values of BenQ fit with our own

I have visited several manufacturers in the last few years, aiming to ensure that all products used and supplied by SunGift are worthy of our name. However, the visit to BenQ was always going to be slightly different. Most of my trips have been to Europe and so I was intrigued to see how differently things would work in Taiwan. More than this, BenQ Solar is a part of the BenQ group. This group of companies spans everything from LCD screens and medical equipment to LED lighting and, of course, solar cell and module manufacture.  Check your desktop if you haven’t heard of them – they’re the third largest LCD screen manufacturer in the world!

My visit begins with innovative energy storage solutions

On landing in Taiwan, I was met at the airport by the ever-generous Mr Lin. I went straight to BenQ’s head office for a meeting with their Head and two of the technical managers of their Battery Storage Department. This may not sound particularly scintillating but in fact the Department are working on a really exciting project: a simple-to-use energy storage device to ensure maximum self-consumption of renewable electricity. It’s a really neat-looking device and, along with many competitors, BenQ are currently negotiating their way through the maze of regulatory issues in each country whose market they wish to penetrate.

It was great to discover that BenQ take such a holistic view and I am very keen to trial this new battery, which does have advantages over some competing products. Fortunately, we shouldn’t have to wait too long, as it should be ready for the UK market in late 2012 or early 2013.

Huge PV manufacturing facility

From the Head Office, we headed down to Taichung and the manufacturing base, for the factory visit and further meetings.  My first impression was that the place was vast.  To give you an idea, they are installing a 10 MW PV array on just two of the many buildings that make up the manufacturing complex.

Benefits of global manufacturing capabilities

One of the most striking differences between this visit and other factories I have explored is the beneficial impact of being one of the top three LCD screen manufacturers in the world.  For a start, before even entering the factory, we had to take off our outdoor shoes. We then headed through the first security point and up a level, before another change of footwear and the donning of head protection. Next up, there is a blower tunnel, which removes any dust. However, this was not running at the time, as the requirements for manufacturing solar modules are far less stringent than those required in LCD screen manufacture. Despite this, the end result is the most comprehensive quality control and attention to detail I have ever seen in a solar manufacturing facility.

Quality control improves performance

BenQ’s whole manufacturing process is automated, with teams of employees overseeing the robots at work. Even so, there are still a couple of processes requiring a human touch, such as the final lining up of the pre-stringed cells, which is required before they go, with the EVA, into the encapsulation process, via the laminator.

One important aspect of quality control is that every module must pass two electroluminescence testers. These testers ensure that there are no ‘micro cracks’ in the cells.  Without this, any ‘micro cracks’ would be impossible to see, but they would have a significant impact on performance, as energy cannot flow as smoothly over a cell affected by them.

When I handled and examined one of the finished products, the exceptional attention to detail and the high level of quality control were self-evident.  This filled me with absolute confidence in the knowledge that the modules manufactured in this facility will continue to deliver high yields throughout their design life. Smaller scale examples of this are visually demonstrated through the use of a specialised 3M sealing tape, rather than silicone, in the frame bonding stage. If you have ever visually inspected a standard module, you can see the overflow of the silicone behind the frame, and on some poorer quality modules you might even see it spilling out on to the front of the module. Therefore, the bonding stage is vitally important, as it ensures the cells are protected from environmental conditions and that the frame stays solidly in place. The use of a sealant tape, such as at BenQ, improves this process and ensures a 100 per cent seal, without any of the associated mess.

Certified on-site test lab

BenQ even has its own certified test lab on site, again an extremely impressive setup. This ensures that all of the materials used and all of the finished products are of an extremely high standard of quality.

Factory’s attention to detail is the most exceptional I’ve ever seen

So, what did I gain from my visit to the BenQ factory? Firstly, the trip re-enforced my conviction that visiting our partners’ manufacturing facilities and really getting to know a company, both serve a vital role. Such visits are positive for SunGift Solar, and therefore for all of our customers, as the knowledge gained is invaluable in evaluating some of the best products and innovators in the world.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, I discovered that BenQ share similar values to our own. It’s a combination of this, their global expertise, and their exceptional manufacturing facilities that allow me to feel very positive about our partnership with them, as they look to enter the UK market.

Written by: Gabriel Wondrausch