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The Future of Solar Manufacturing in the United States with Martin DeBono
Episode 910th January 2022 • The Manufacturers' Network • Lisa Ryan
00:00:00 00:25:43

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Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. Our guest today is Martin DeBono. Martin is President of GAF energy. GAF energy has built a combined manufacturing and R&D facility in California, where they are currently building the next generation of solar roofing systems. Martin, welcome to the show.

Martin DeBono: Thank you for having me.

Lisa Ryan: So share with us a bit about your background and what led you into solar.

Martin DeBono: Out of college, I joined the navy. I was a submarine officer for five years after serving in the military. I pursued a career in technology, working for various software and hardware companies during that journey. A recruiter reached out to me and said, hey, are you interested in working for the solar power company? This conversation took place back in 2012. At the time, I thought solar power, that's just a niche industry. It turns out that even at the time, it wasn't an easy industry, and it's been growing very quickly.

Last year, more than half of all the new electricity generation in the United States came from solar. For the last eight or nine years, I've been in solar. I recently became the President of GAF energy, an operating company in the standard industry family of companies. Standard Industries is best known for owning the largest roofing manufacturing company in Europe. So we joined a company with a strong heritage in roofing and manufacturing.

The reason for this is that there is a convergence between solar roofing and being part of the world's largest manufacturer, and we felt it would be a great platform in which to 

push both industries forward.

Lisa Ryan: So why solar? What are some of the opportunities that you see for solar long term? I live in Cleveland, Ohio, so that's not usually where we think of the sun a lot.

Martin DeBono: I'm here in California, one of the nation's leading solar markets. What's remarkable is the cost of solar generators has come down, and the cost of electricity has gone up. In solar, you're getting electricity from technology. We've seen the pricing of technology go down. The price of your iPhone has come down. The cost of computers has come down. You get way more performance at a similar price point.

Solar energy is following the price of other technology. We get more for the same price, whereas traditional energy – coal, natural gas, etc. - is going up because those commodity prices are rising with inflation. The opportunity with solar energy is enormous, including in places like Ohio, especially when you incorporate the solar generating material into the building itself. By manufacturing a solar roof, we can kill two birds with one stone, integrating the solar and roofing systems. It reduces costs and will allow more people to get the benefits of solar electricity, which is a more reliable source of electricity. It's also a less expensive source of electricity than what you get from utilities.

Lisa Ryan: It's also obviously a lot cleaner and something that we don't have to worry about running out of any time soon. As far as the contribution of making a difference on the planet, it also sounds like solar has a leg up on a lot of the other places that we get our energy from.

Martin DeBono: Many people aren't sure about the impacts of climate change and global warming, but I try to tell many people that the effects of getting fossil fuels include shipping. You're transporting it, and that takes money.

As a veteran myself, we have the Sixth Fleet, which protects the Persian Gulf to ensure oil supplies. So, first, there's a benefit for the self-generation of electricity. Second, the answer is staring us in the face during the day, or at least for half the day. The amount of energy that the sun transmits to the earth in one minute Is the equivalent of all the world's power plants' output any year. If we can harness a small fraction of that, we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels. You're right, it is clean, but I think that the most common reason people choose to get a solar roof is selfish, and that is it's less expensive. You can use a significant investment investing in solar - it pays off.

Lisa Ryan: So, your emphasis has been that you are doing the R&D and the manufacturing in the United States. Why is that such a big deal?

Martin DeBono: Yes, so it's been shocking now that I'm old. I just had a major milestone of a birthday. But you see just the loss of manufacturing expertise in the United States, especially in solar. As recently as five or six years ago, almost a third of the solar panels in the world were manufactured by US companies. Now that number is less than 5%, and I've seen facilities move across borders or in different States to save a few hundred thousand dollars or a few million dollars a year.

Perhaps, the most concerning is that I've seen an exodus of talent from the clean energy industry accompanying the decline of American manufacturing excellence in clean energy. By this, I mean, eight or nine years ago, when I got into the solar industry, it was pretty easy to recruit people because they're like, hey yeah, I'm going to work for an American company, I want to make a difference, as you mentioned.

 Solar energy is clean energy, and it does indeed help with some of the challenges that our energy supply chain has today. But they become disillusioned when they have to spend 2, 3, 4 months a year away from their home by flying to Asia, where the predominant manufacturers of solar products in the world are located. They are trying to implement their inventions on the manufacturing line. So today, those same people are not getting into the industry but instead taking jobs at Google or Microsoft. They are highly educated, and those companies need highly educated people. So for us, combining manufacturing and R&D was a necessity. We want to attract talent and meet our customers' demands very quickly.

Lisa Ryan: Solar has been around for a while. What is it that you're doing on your end? In bringing solar to the United States, what differentiates what they get from Asia, and the rest of the world.

Martin DeBono: Yes, so, as I mentioned, by combining R&D and manufacturing in the same facility, we've been able to make advances very, very rapidly. We just announced the first world's first nail-able solar single, and it's the first advancement in the way solar is installed in about 30 years. The traditional way solar is installed to take a flat-screen TV and bolt it to the roof through the water protection barrier. Many of your listeners have seen a solar panel it's about two feet by three feet or two feet by four feet and lug it up to the roof. We've created a nail-able solar shingle.

There's nothing else like it in the world. It will reduce the installation time remarkably. It also makes sure that the waterproof integrity of the home is maintained, and it looks a lot better than those early solar panels. In addition, you're able to do it quickly again by not having our R&D team having to spend half their lives on planes. Instead, they walk 10 feet to see the manufacturing line where these new products are created.

Lisa Ryan: Please tell us what those panels look like compared to other solar panels.

Martin DeBono: Yes, certainly. What we produce looks nothing like the traditional solar panels at all. It looks like a shingle. Traditional shingles are 40 inches wide by about 16 inches tall, and the two singles overlap half of it. You shingle half of the single above it, and it covers the single below it to make sure water flows. We created a solar shingle about five feet wide and again 16 inches deep. They nail it down, and it looks just like a shingle.

If you are standing on the sidewalk and you're looking up at your house, they are perfectly in line with the rest of the roof. There is nothing that the single soul itself is the shingle. It's remarkable. No one has invented it before because I don't think people thought it could be invented. But, more importantly, there are several factors at play that allow this to be the right time for such an invention.

First, what's happened in the solar industry is the solar cell itself is no longer the most expensive part of the value chain. The actual installation of the solar module is the most costly part. When someone looks at what makes up the cost of a solar system, getting installed is the most significant part. Sales and marketing is the second biggest part. The solar cell itself has come down much in the same way. If you think that an iPhone memory has come down to low prices, processing power has also come down. That spawned a new form of computer, the handheld computer or the iPhone.

Similarly, the cell's very, very low cost has enabled us to focus elsewhere. The first reason is the reduction in the price of the solar cell. The second reason is that we come from it from a roofing perspective. Finally, GAF Energy, through its relationship with Standard Industries, knows a lot about manufacturing, and we're able to put that manufacturing expertise to bear to create an entirely new form factor.

Based on the single form factor, the company has been perfecting for 50 or 60 years. When you combine the advances in materials technology and solar, along with the manufacturing expertise in roofing, those are two of the three concentric components. The last was a willingness to invest. Standard Industries is one of the largest private companies in the United States, if not the world. They have the capital to invest. They've invested in leading technology such as recycling asphalt shingles. As I mentioned, their willingness and desire to make a long-term investment, even though it seems very quickly, it's taken us two, three years to do this. They've invested two to three years in making this happen. As a result, the combination of some of the constituent components of solar pricing is coming down.

Roofing manufacturing expertise, willingness to it, and willingness to invest has allowed GAF energy to move state of the art, and it's something that nobody expected can be done.

Lisa Ryan: Well, I think, from a Labor standpoint, it also sounds like there can be tremendous savings in labor if you're not lugging those big titles up to the roof and doing all that. Talk a bit about that aspect of your product.

Martin DeBono: Yes, absolutely. The labor savings is twofold: one, the actual physical act of getting the material on the roof is much simpler. The shingles go up just using traditional shingle transportation methodologies. In many parts of the country, shingles are delivered right onto the roof, as opposed to a solar module having to be lugged up the roof - it's about 47 pounds, I think the only limit is 50 pounds, so it's just under that. Once on the roof, they use a nail gun, and it goes down at least twice as fast as the next fastest technology for solar. So the savings are significant. The other savings that we get are directly related to our manufacturing in the United States because we're closer to the customer. Because our factories are in California, we can take advantage of streamlined logistics and supply chains.

As I mentioned, 95% of the solar panels United States come from outside the United States, and if the weather is holding up the ports on either coast or the amount of time it takes shipping across the ocean, that's a lot of time - six to 12 weeks on the water. With inflation, that eats into your profits. We have labor savings. The savings one gets from the supply chain nearby are fantastic.

Lisa Ryan: Right. We've heard for years about how manufacturers were leaving the United States. So it sounds like this is an excellent excuse to start bringing some of that manufacturing back. But what do you think are some of the reasons we've lost so much manufacturing here in the states, including solar.

Martin DeBono: I think that we've lost it because many companies just became concerned about cost and not innovation. They became worried about prices and not customer satisfaction. Then, of course, there's no doubt that other governments, China specifically, said, hey, we need to build a manufacturing base here. So they made low-cost government loans available to incentivize people to move their facilities overseas. The reason I say it's short-term is that I've seen decisions made where one moves a factory from the United States outside the United States for a few million dollars. You lose that in terms of meeting changing market requirements rapidly. You lose that in terms of productivity losses because you have people who designed the equipment which isn't located near the people operating the equipment.

When there are challenges in production, those are costs that don't show up in any spreadsheet initially. But they show up overall. So I think that what you see in the solar industry is that as more of the solar manufacturing has moved overseas, the industry's overall profitability has declined.

I tell many people who are not familiar with the solar industry, like the airline industry. If you added up all the profits in the airline industry from 1932 to the year 2000, it was zero. They couldn't make any money. We saw that in the solar industry, solar manufacturing was outsourced to Asia. The overall profits in the solar industry have gone away. That's because they lost sight of innovation, and they lost sight of customer service.

Lisa Ryan: Is your product both for home use and commercial use, or is it primarily geared one or the other?

Martin DeBono: Our product is primarily geared towards residential space. GAF is the largest residential roofing manufacturing company in the United States. They're one of the largest commercial manufacturers as well. But we designed our product to blend perfectly with a typical residential roof, so in the United States, the predominant roof type is our singles. Our solar shingle matches very well with the traditional shingle, and so you have a seamless transition from one to the other. There's so much opportunity in residential roofing right now that that's our focus. We put this in perspective that over 5 million people get a new roof a year. GAF has over 25% market share, so they're able to give them a million people a year. The opportunity around roofing is so prominent on the residential side that that's where we'll focus initially.

Lisa Ryan: On this show, we talk a lot about workplace culture in manufacturing and the skilled trades, which is an excellent correlation between both. What are the things that you are doing well with your employee? How are you not only attracting people to your industry but what are some of the things that you're doing to keep to keep them there?

Martin DeBono I don't want to call our employees skilled and unskilled because our assembly line operators have become very skilled in what they do. So let's say the folks, the PhDs, and the masters who invent the products for them can see the fruits of their labor. Every day is gratifying; even now, the factory has been up and running for four or five months. People go out, and walk the line, and look at what's going on, and it gives them a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

They also appreciate that they don't have to get on a plane to make any changes. Suppose you're a creative type, an engineer, an inventor, physicist, or chemist trying to make a significant impact in the world. In that case, the ability to see the fruits of your labor is remarkably rewarding. It exceeded my greatest expectation. We did this because we wanted to attract talent and retain it. The looks and the smiles on people's faces when they see that line running and the ability for us to change very quickly has paid huge dividends on the Ph.D. master side of the house as well as our operators.

The cultural challenge is typically when you have a manufacturing company. All the people that designed the actual widget or whatever you're making are physically separated from those that manufacture it. You can end up a multicast cultural system, where Hey, I'm skilled, your unskilled labor. We're trying hard to avoid that. It does cost us a bit more, but we share the same cafeteria benefits to both skilled and unskilled labor. While that costs a bit, what we believe that enables us to do is if you can instill empathy for the operators and the people that develop it. You will come up with a much more efficient manufacturing process more quickly.

The time it might cost in downtime has increased the time to implement the new features that enable you to get more margin by having just one workforce, as opposed to thinking about it, if skilled and unskilled, there are benefits there.

Operating in California is a very high-cost environment, and automation is also super important to us. We expect that, over time, we will be able to automate more and more of the process to improve our output. Our operators will move from doing manual steps to being the ones who oversee the robots that, through it, this is only possible by having the R&D team co-located with the factory.

Lisa Ryan: One, and the other benefit too is if somebody on that factory floor, who is using the product, sees something that maybe the engineers miss because they're not involved in the day-to-day manufacturing or the day-to-day installation, that conversation happens having to fly over to Asia to make a tweak that may or may not work. You're having that conversation, and when those hourly, the unskilled employees feel heard feel that they're making a difference. That level of commitment and loyalty to the company goes up several times because they're not just some grunt work around the line. They're being listened to and having lunch with the skilled labor.

Martin DeBono: It happens all the time. A young woman has a Ph.D. who is talking with the operators. They are the ones in manufacturing and impacted her part of the value chain. They develop the type on that instantiate itself. She 

came and redesigned some of the ergonomics of that. This is all the best practice in manufacturing, but here you have it happening at a much quicker pace. Similarly, our attrition now is remarkably low for what we pay. We have had such low attrition on the operator side, and I attribute that they are just as invested in making these things, making this company work because their recommendations are, if not immediately implemented there, directly discussed. It's not like they put them in some box, and they make your back in six to nine months, but they can go and talk with the folks that are responsible for that particular job. It has been remarkable.

I think that, overall, this will enable our success. We have a good market product and market fit. We can manufacture this product locally so we'll stay in front of the competition concerning implementing these new capabilities. Therefore, the challenge becomes, how do we manage our costs? We manage our costs by getting costs out of the system faster. Simply...