NEXTracker’s Supply Chain Maestros Turn Complexity into Beautiful Music

By on October 24, 2017

There may be no more compelling visual proof of the arrival of large-scale solar as a legitimate energy-generation source than the sight of thousands of solar trackers stretching as far as the eye can see. The technology involved, the quality and reliability designed into the systems, and the coordinated construction process required to achieve this kind of triple-digit megawatt scale are impressive. But none of these grand projects would be possible if not for the unsung heroes behind the scenes managing our global supply chain and sourcing operations. With the hundreds of megawatts of products we’re moving around the globe every month and the gigawatts more that are in the pipeline, it becomes clear that maestro levels of planning, quality  control and logistics orchestration are required.

NEXTracker torque tubes at steel supplier, BCI Engineering, prepping for shipment.

The sourcing and supply chain process starts well before finished components are on their way to solar farms under construction around the world. Before we qualify our suppliers, we evaluate the best places to have our parts manufactured in terms of cost, capability and quality. NEXTracker is manufacturing and serving clients on five continents—to manage risks (including natural disasters, trade, currency, market dynamics) and to ensure rapid delivery time to our customers at the lowest cost.

  FROM OUR CUSTOMERS
“Mortenson and NEXTracker have successfully collaborated on six projects, from small jobs to 300 MW systems.
We are 
delighted with NEXTracker’s quality, responsiveness, and on-time delivery.”
    – Trent Mostaert, VP and GM, Mortenson Solar and Emerging Renewables

 

Once we decide where the parts will be manufactured, we develop long-term supply partners to manufacture them. We research those companies that might be able to work with us and narrow the list to a handful of players. Before we even delve into a candidate’s manufacturing capability, we make sure the company is financially sound, has ample experience and reputable manufacturing ethics, boasts a solid client roster, and uses environmentally responsible manufacturing methods.

After we examine a potential supplier’s production capabilities, factory tooling, engineering expertise and the like, we set a high bar during our assessment and auditing processes. Our qualified suppliers must be ISO 9001 certified at a minimum, and each of them goes through a comprehensive quality assurance program that includes multiple audits, factory acceptance testing, conformance certification and other practices in line with the highest-quality standards. Before we take any new component design into production, we run it through our rigorous product verification process, making sure that the part is ready for the field before deployment. In addition to finding best-in-class partners in terms of quality and reliability, we also want approved vendors that can scale with us, that can work closely with our applications team on improving our products, and help us to squeeze more cost out of our bill of materials.

One example of a key vendor that has more than met the challenge of our stringent quality and reliability requirements is Kinematics Manufacturing Inc. (KMI). Earlier this year, KMI was the first slew drive supplier to successfully pass the battery of design verification tests in accordance with NEXTracker’s stringent component lifetime reliability requirements, calling them “by far the most rigorous, comprehensive, and demanding set of testing we have seen to evaluate every conceivable aspect of quality and long-term durability for tracker gears.”

NEXTracker slew drives, manufactured by KMI, go through rigorous testing to meet reliability requirements before shipping.

So, the suppliers are qualified, the components are sourced and the shipments are ready to roll: How do all these moving parts (literally) come together and reach our customers’ projects on a timely basis? When it comes to execution, our planning and logistics teams are the brains of the supply chain.

The planning group works with sales to find out which bids will turn into contracted projects, and coordinates with sourcing to see what’s being used and whether the demand for components will be covered by the production capacity of our suppliers over the next six quarters and beyond. The planning team is always looking at least six months into the future to ensure ample capacity exists with qualified supply partners. 

The logistics group stays in daily communication with the planning team, coordinating its network of transport companies and freight forwarders to expedite the shipments on a timely basis, without bureaucratic red tape or last-minute cost overruns. Customers expect on-time delivery, and we have been able to meet their ever-more-demanding schedules, allowing us to confidently and consistently increase the amount of product we can ship to them. With 250 shipping containers leaving our factories every week to many different countries, and 175 MW of trackers shipped around the globe every week (or 7,000 tracker rows), our teams have risen to the challenge.

The incredibly complicated work of our global supply chain maestros may go unnoticed when admiring an endless field of solar trackers soaking up rays, but without the team’s expertise, coordination and dedication, we would not have achieved our success to date or be ready for the gigawatts of beautiful projects coming down the pipeline.