Solar Pilgrim Pages
It's a freezing morning the day after Thanksgiving, and I'm pressed against a cold window on a cold train to Boston. I haven't been to the States in almost a year and I miss being cold. I miss fall leaves and wonderful New England stone walls and bleak New England houses. Cold sullen water is icy-still in the marshes and frost is steaming off the rooftops and frost is steaming off the rooftops and it's lovely here.
I got back four days ago, and like a hermit crab, I've been building up a little shell around myself. A lifetime of building and projects means that I've got countless boxes of components and tools and books stashed in basements up and down the east coast. I grabbed a jumbo duffel bag and have been stuffing it with things that are hard to come by in Manila. 3D printer filament and Leonard Cohen books and atmega64s and picture postcards and nontoxic polyurethane encapsulant and zigbee radios.
Just because I'm in the States doesn't mean life in Manila goes on hold. I'm staying up till 2AM every night on calls with freight forwarders and customs brokers, advocating for two lasers that are sitting in a warehouse in Manila port, trying to get them delivered to my lab. Oy vey! When I get back, we'll go into mondo production mode and cut 88,000 solettes for the kits. That will be fun.
Two hours before my flight from Manila, I finished moving into Mantis II, my new lab in Manila. We moved into a converted shoe warehouse in Manila's lively Cubao X, tucked in among art galleries and bars and antique shops. It's a far cry from the old boardinghouse that we called home for the last six months, and I'm miss drinking cheap rum with the neighborhood trike drivers at two in the morning and hearing roosters crow after pulling an all-nighter. But I like the concrete floors and cement walls and the fact that we don't have to haul 1200 pounds of laser equipment up narrow staircases. Moving was supposed to happen over a leisurely two-week period, but rotten loveless bastards conspired to compress it to a hellish three days of no sleep and hauling pocket factories in borrowed trucks across Manila at 4am. Why am I telling you this? Because I love my new lab and it's more fun to complain to an audience than to feel smug and accomplished.
I've learned a staggering amount about international shipping and customs in the last several weeks. For small packages like the kits, it's not an issue. Take it to the post office, pay the postage, drop it in the mail, and it gets there. It's a different story to shlepp 150 pounds of fancy encapsulant from LA to Shenzhen. Out of curiousity, I asked Fedex's shipping calculator how much it would cost to mail it like a normal Fedex package, and was somewhat dismayed to see that it cost more than my first car.
Fortunately, a few pages back in the phone book, there's a slew of freight companies that no one has ever heard of. These are the guys. They know how to ship a thousand pounds of machinery across borders and oceans. They do it all the time, and they're good at it. It's not as easy or straightforward as dropping something in the mail slot at the Fedex, so I spent a lot of time on the phone getting a crash course in packing goods onto pallets, arranging customs brokers and moving big things onto bigger boats and all these things sound terribly grown-up.
But that's enough about kits and labs and shipping. I want to give an update on the big dream that is driving all of this: the Solar Pocket Factory. In the last several months, Shawn and I learned something interesting about the way we both work: we like to tackle ambitious, impossible projects, but we do our best work when we impose our own impossible deadlines. When we pressure ourselves, we panic briefly, and then build faster, more cleverly, and more thoroughly than we would otherwise. So we compressed a leisurely six months of development into six weeks, and set the goal to get the first production factory finished by middle of december. And it worked. Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet the pilot Solar Pocket Factory:
Design and shots by the illustrious Angus Fok
Isn't she lovely? We're done with our master design, and we just got our first set of parts. Just look at them!
Next week, Shawn's lab will put it together in Hong Kong, discover that there are four or five problems we didn't anticipate, order some fixes, and by the end of next week he’ll send a big box down to Manila, where my lab will handle the firmware and controls. We want production-quality panels coming off the line before we break for Christmas (I'd say the holidays, but I'll be working through Chanukkah and also I hate politically correct speech). Stay tuned for an in-depth tour in the next update, but for now, enjoy the eye candy.
We've done a lot of thinking about the Pocket Factories over the last six months and we’ve found that the hardest questions are the biggest ones: Who's going to use these things? What are they going to make with them? Where are all these people?
Well, we're going to operate the first Solar Pocket Factory in Manila,and start selling the panels, but in the long term we don't want to be in the solar panel-making business: we want to make and sell the machines that let people make solar all over the world. Yes, we will probably always run our own machines to help us understand how they operate and how to streamline and simplify the process, but we think that as more people around the world have simple, fast access to solar,they will come up with all kinds of new neat ideas that use this solar in interesting ways. We want to start getting these machines into other people's hands, ASAP, and it's that desire to distribute solar production around the world that shapes our plans and designs as we go.
In our original vision, we'd feed the machine with the rawest of materials, and it would make the same kind of microsolar panels as the ones you buy from China, not only cheaper but with automated and distributed production all over the world, rather than in centralized and globalized factories. The more we experimented with this machine, the more we realized that it was going to be pricey. To start with raw, whole solar cells, we would need an expensive laser built into each machine that could score the solar cells, plus an additional module that would break the solettes along the score lines. That laser, in particular, was driving the price up. The cheapest cell-scoring laser we could buy was $12,000 US, and it was big. It weighed about a thousand pounds and took up about twenty square feet of floor space. Plus, we'd have to build in our own materials-handling system to bring cells onto the laser for scoring, and to remove, test and stack the scored and broken solettes. Starting from raw, whole solar cells did give some more flexibility in production, but it also made the machine far more expensive, unweildly, and complicated. We wanted a better way.
We hit on this idea of cartridging solettes. What if we separated the scoring laser from the Pocket Factory? Instead of taking whole solar cells as a raw material, the Solar Pocket Factories would take a refillable cartridge of pre-cut solettes that are a certain size. We'd operate a scoring laser in one of our labs, and we could score, cut and ship any size solettes that factory operators needed for their panels. Operators wouldn't have to buy from us--the silicon could be sourced and scored from dozens of silicon fabs around the world, and anyone can load solettes into a cartridge, but in Southeast Asia, with access to the bulk of the world's silicon production, we could guarantee quick, custom cutting and shipping to anywhere in the world.
This decision does centralize the solette production, but the silicon was already the most centralized raw material. And then there's the price: this simple decision dropped our machine price by an order of magnitude. Instead of making a machine that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, we could make a machine that costs tens of thousands of dollars. And that's much closer to the vision of cheap, ubiquitous solar production.
We can make this machine, and we can make it simple, and we can get it out soon. And that thought lights us up. We don't want to spend years building up an expensive pocket factory and marketing it through trade fairs like every other big, dumb, expensive machine. We want to make cheap machines that work well, and we want to be able to make and ship them now. We want them to be capable--able to make better panels than what's out there now. And we want them everywhere.
This here journey is a long and complex one, and it's important for us to keep a North Star in our sights as we go. Some companies keep score with number of users, or money, or how many units they've sold. We care about how many panels are made on our machines. That tells us how much of an impact we're having, and how well our little idea of distributed solar production is doing at getting panels out into the world. The more I think about this metric, the more I like it. It means that we're not just trying to sell as many machines as we can--we also want to make sure the machines are making useful things, and that the machine operators can find people who want solar, and make that solar for them. It also means that we should make panels that aren't just commodity panels that compete with the run-of-the-mill stuff coming out of traditional factories: the machines are better and cheaper, and the panels should be, too.
So that's the plan: make machines. Make them work well, make them cheap enough that they can reach far and wide, and make them make good panels. And then get them out into the world. It may sound simple, but this idea was born on a cold, wet conversation on a motorcycle ride across the Philippines one year ago, and it took thousands and thousands of hours and prototypes and travel and Skype calls and thinking to distill it down to this simple statement. As always, the hardest question is knowing why you're doing what you're doing. Once you've got that, the rest might take time and effort, but at least the hard stuff is out of the way.
I've been having a dream, recently, of a view from a helicopter flying above Long Island, the week after hurricane Sandy. It's nighttime and everything's dark, the power lines are down everywhere and roads are clogged with fallen trees. It's one of those wide-angle shots and you can see miles and miles of neighborhoods with dark houses and people keeping warm inside. And in my dream, there are a few neighborhoods with lights on, small pockets of light in the night. And someone in these neighborhoods had a pocket factory in his garage and was able to crank out solar lights for her neighborhood, with a custom tweak to charge popular walkie-talkies.
The train is slowing, now, and I see familiar pretty houses and ugly highways. The voice on the intercom squawks out, "Next stap, Bawhstuhn. Enda the line."
God DAMN!!! I love that dirty water.