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First Solar: Balancing Cost and Customer Service

Mark Zeni, director of fulfillment with First Solar, talks about the challenges his company faces in gaining full visibility of supply and demand, and in dealing with increasing supply-chain volatility.

First Solar, a global provider of solar-energy equipment and systems, is out to implement integrated product management (IPM).

Zeni notes a significant growth in the company's systems business between 2009 and 2013. During that time, First Solar amassed a large number of point applications. "With the volume of projects that we're building," he says, "unless we integrated them, [we would find] it very difficult to manage the business."

Globalization is a key trend affecting the company's business. First Solar launched its systems business in North America, but soon found the need to expand to other regions. In the process, it realized that it couldn't keep driving down costs with a collection of disconnected IT applications.

The IPM initiative involved the implementation of a "closed-loop" enterprise resource planning application. At the same time, the company needed to integrate all aspects of the business, including project scheduling, engineering, construction, cost control and finance.

It was equally important to assess the impact of any plan deviations. All manufacturers today face challenges of shrinking lead times, increasing velocity of order fulfillment and the continuing need to drive down inventories, Zeni says.

"The impact of a small deviation will impact throughout your supply chain faster than before, when you had longer lead times," he says. "In the construction business, we're faced with a myriad of variables we don't have any control over."

First Solar relies on Kinaxis and a number of key analytics, supporting the ability of users to create and compare various scenarios, make changes to the schedule, understand the impact of their actions on inventory levels, and manage cash flow. Under the old system, says Zeni, "You would slide a pizza under the door with room full of analysts, and not let them come out for a couple of weeks."

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Keywords: supply chain, supply chain management, high-tech supply chain, inventory management, inventory control, supply chain planning, sourcing solutions

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