More Than a Product: Innovation for a New Era

Evolving Products to Platforms in a Changing World

Plan for Scale

Solar trackers are mounted solar panels that can adjust themselves to track the sun’s movement according to an algorithm and intelligent controls to optimize energy capture. NEXTracker is the leading smart solar tracker manufacturer worldwide, with over 30 gigawatts either installed or under fulfillment. To put that in perspective, one gigawatt is enough to power 725,000 U.S. homes.

Looking at it another way, a traditional power plant has an output of half a gigawatt, and the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S. produces four gigawatts.

Alex Au, NEXTracker’s Chief Technology Officer, explained, “Every week, we’re shipping more than 500 megawatts worth of product. We’re essentially shipping full-scale power plants every one or two weeks. But the first project that we did was a one-megawatt project, which might sound small, but it’s not. To produce one megawatt, you need to install solar trackers across six square acres of land.”

By their fourth project, things were already changing; the client wanted 69 megawatts, which meant shipping and installing trackers across 414 square acres.

“Every single part and component that we shipped was installed and used,” Alex said, “and you can only scale to that magnitude if the infrastructure is in place.”

Like many companies today, NEXTracker is a virtual manufacturer. They work with a network of partners who help source and build their systems.

In fact, when those systems are shipped, they don’t go to a NEXTracker warehouse but instead go directly to the site where they are to be installed. So when Alex talks about building out infrastructure that allows the company to scale, he is referring specifically to the technical infrastructure—the systems that orchestrate this complex system.

“When I became CTO, I was asked, ‘What resources do you need first? Engineering and all that stuff?’ I said, ‘No, but I do need resources for data management and creating processes from procurement through to delivery.’ “

Alex based this decision on experience. As he told us, “When I was 28, I actually ran procurement, among other things, at the company where I worked. So I know: You can get an order, but if you can’t ship it, you can’t install it, and you can’t get paid.”

“One of my biggest pet peeves is when you call a large organization, for example, to resolve a billing issue. Then you say, ‘Hey, I have a question, a technical question about XYZ,’ and they say, ‘Sorry, that’s not my department.’ The problem is, since every department is using totally different software, you get booted around.

– Alex Au, Chief Technology Officer, NEXTracker

Alex and his team implemented a comprehensive stack including everything from engineering and design tools to Arena’s PLM system and a CRM featuring configure price quote (CPQ) capabilities. In addition, they built extensive data management and analytics capabilities, capabilities NEXTracker leverages for everything from quality management to predictive maintenance and monitoring the most remote power plants in the world.

A particularly powerful benefit of this system is that it provides every part of the organization with the data it needs.

At NEXTracker, customers have a different experience, because all stakeholders have access to relevant customer information via a unique customer identifier. What’s more, the data the company collects gets remarkably granular.

Plan for ScaleWhen a company brings a product to market that’s so innovative it quickly takes market share from its main competitors, it’s easy to believe the innovation is the reason for success. As Alex Au and NEXTracker know, that’s not the whole story.

A company needs systems that allow it to scale by coordinating information across the organization and throughout the supply chain, while also providing ongoing insight into everything from manufacturing performance to customer experience. The innovation may drive the need to scale, but the systems need to support it.

“When our guys are in the field installing a system, they’re scanning QR codes to be able to say, ‘The power electronics on this tracker is located at this geospatial coordinate,’ etc. It’s getting mapped out into our database that also tags it back to the manufacturer. We can identify which manufacturer the unit came from, what country it came from, what production lot, what production week.”

– Alex Au, Chief Technology Officer, NEXTracker