Dean Solon, founder of Shoals Technologies, designed this factory in Portland, Tennessee, where 500 of his employees produce enough cables every day to generate “megawatt by megawatt” of solar power
Image: Javel Toppin for Forbes At Shoals Technologies' 100,000-square-foot Portland, Tennessee factory begins Dean Solon's quest for simplicity with the Sesame Street-inspired color-coded shirts his workers wear. “The SunPower logo was yellow, so this is Big Bird. First Solar was red for Elmo, ”he says. Those working on an order for Blattner Energy, a large solar company, wear Cookie Monster blue. “And then we have the count in purple. He always counts. These are the quality control people.Shoals' non-union workers at four factories in Tennessee and Alabama create the guts for big solar panels – basically everything you need except those shiny photovoltaic panels and the inverters it takes to get power to the grid. They manufacture cable assemblies, combiner boxes and external fuses. It's exactly the kind of unsexy production that almost everyone believes fled to China years ago.
In fact, most of Solon's competitors are Chinese companies such as GCL System Integration and Wuxi Sun King. The components made in China are cheaper than Shoals', but Solon has an advantage: its stuff is considered safer, more reliable, and easier to install. That means companies are willing to pay 5 to 10 percent more for it because they believe they can make up for it with lower labor and maintenance costs. Last year, that bonus added up to a profit of $ 34 million on sales of $ 176 million. After going public in January, the 57-year-old Solon is worth a lot $ 2.2 billion, thanks to its 40 percent interest in the company and after-tax income from previous stock sales.
To keep this Made in America premium as low as possible, Solon makes the manufacturing process as foolproof as possible. Screens attached to the front of each machine show workers how to complete each task – from stripping and crimping wires to installing fuses and completing cable assemblies – with cycle times measured in man-seconds rather than man-hours. It's a “Pavlov's dog” world, says Solon, where workers are trained to correct themselves when a light begins to blink on their ward, indicating that they are late on schedule and have about 15 minutes to spare to correct the error before the flashing becomes faster and “Maintenance” is called. They are told not to worry about screwing it up. “If this process gets something wrong, be ashamed of us – we designed it wrong, we weren't bulletproof enough for you not to make mistakes,” he says .
Factory managers sit above the factory floor on a mezzanine platform that Solon calls Pride Rock, after the distinctive slab in The Lion King. They seldom interfere; Teams help each other to solve problems because if one slows down for too long, the next one will run out of parts. “Don't yell at anyone; let them win for themselves, ”says Solon. “I don't have to squeeze another 10 seconds out of them. When the green light is on, we make money. “
Solon has been taking his family to Disney World twice a year for decades and has long been inspired by the park's orchestrated perfection. “On the surface everything is calm and happy and serene, but underneath there are hundreds of people who make sure the magic works.” However, on a recent trip to Orlando, he's not headed to Disney, but to a nearby solar field owned by Origis Energy. On sunny days, this 270-hectare facility generates 60 MW – enough to cover around a quarter of the Magic Kingdom's electricity needs. Michael Eyman, managing director of Origis Services, says Shoals products are “not always the cheapest, but always the best”. Origis tried to install competitor equipment, “and all of them, without exception, have failed in their warranty period”.
Shoals' plug-and-play hardware eliminates the need to strip wire and crimp millions of connections by hand. “We don't turn our customers' fields into our test site,” says Solon, showing a wall of five test chambers, refrigerator-sized boxes in which he can expose prototypes to heat, cold and 100 percent relative heat for 40 days and nights.
Solon is the named inventor of 30 issued and pending patents. He owns at least as many denim shorts, his favorite uniform, along with a black t-shirt with a shoals collar.
He prides himself on caring so little about bean counting and SEC filings that 15 months ago he handed over the reins of CEO to longtime Chief Technical Officer Jason Whitaker.
Solon remains on the board of directors and focuses on new products. Shoals chairman Brad Forth is also a senior advisor to Oaktree Capital, which bought more than half of the company from Solon in 2017 and paid out $ 2 billion in its most recent IPO. Now that it's public, is there any nudge to squeeze out a few more marginal points by easing some of Solon's obsessions? “We'll never sacrifice quality or reliability,” says Whitaker, 41, “because it's built into the process itself.”
Solon started out at the age of 8 with a toolbox for his father, who did air conditioning, refrigeration repairs and taught at the Gary, Indiana vocational school. Young Dean disassembled everything to see how it worked and reassembled it, from the lawnmower to the V8 engine, sometimes with a few scraps. At 16 he had his own customers and his own truck. He studied engineering in Purdue, but dropped out. He broke off an internship at Inland Steel when the innovations he developed were not recognized. In the late 1980s he developed and sold automotive parts for a joint venture between General Electric and Bosch. He made a point of cutting his commissions so customers kept coming back to make more – and then gave up when his bosses annoyed that he was still making more money than them.
In 2003 he received a call from First Solar who needed some cables and junction boxes to connect solar panels. Soon Cypress Semiconductor wanted the same equipment for its solar spin-off SunPower. “I've been driven my whole life – I thought I would retire from making auto parts.” Instead, he led the “promotional thinkers and basement tinkerers” of the solar industry, who had no idea how to efficiently scale their production Manufacturing perfectionism. “All I knew was size.”
The solar revolution is just beginning. In 2020, US solar power generation grew 25 percent to 130 GW-hours, but non-hydropower renewable energies still only account for 12.5 percent of total domestic energy supply. Beyond the higher quality, there is another window of opportunity for local gamblers to shine: In late 2019, China's Huawei shut down its US solar business after Congress publicized its concerns that Huawei's devices could act as vectors for cyberattacks.
For someone so process-oriented, it's refreshing that Solon has remained committed to the human element of his business. Animatronics may be fun in the amusement park, but not in the Shoals factories. “It's cool that a robot can work around the clock, but the robot doesn't go home to a family and has to feed them at the end of the evening,” says Solon. “I could install automation and do it completely robotically, this whole factory. But then I'm just an idiot. ”
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