Solar

From food packaging to solar panels

Many companies are looking to break into the solar area, widely seen as a high-growth area for industries such as semiconductors and electronics. One Japanese firm has arrived at the market from a different direction.

May 6, 2009 – Many companies are looking to break into the solar area, widely seen as a high-growth area for industries such as semiconductors and electronics. One Japanese firm has arrived at the market from a different direction, notes the Nikkei Veritas.

Solar cell maker NPC, which is on track for a fifth consecutive year of sales and profit growth (and is confident for a sixth), holds a commanding 40% share in its market for PV module equipment; its earnings briefing on April 7 was standing-room only, the paper reports. But its path to success wasn’t always clear.

The firm started off in 1992 supplying vacuum packaging machines for foods and similar products. In 1994 it received simultaneous orders from two “electrical machinery” firms — which, curiously, had nothing to do with food or other familiar markets, and were mysterious about their plans. Soon, more orders from other similar firms arrived. “We were puzzled and began looking for answers,” company president Yoshiro Chikaki told the Veritas. Ultimately, “we found out that they were using the machines to make solar cells.”

Intrigued, the company developed a vacuum laminator to attach a protective sheet to a solar cell. With the domestic market not big enough (still in the 1990s), the firm expanded to the US and Europe — and dealt direct with its own employees, not through a contractor. This enabled it to “obtain firsthand information,” Chikaki said. “Customers are happier when people who understand the technology come to them.”

The firm now has around 300 employees (mostly in their 30s or younger), and has business with ~90% of global solar module makers; 80%-90% of its sales are outside Japan, with factories in more than 30 countries.