PV capex reverting to standard tool types

As c-Si manufacturing capacity levels continue to surge, the introduction of new suppliers with tools used at key process steps may signal a more competitive landscape during the next round of capex allocation, explain Finlay Colville and Charles Annis from Solarbuzz. Exhibit A: Orbotech’s forthcoming PECVD SiNx tool.

by Finlay Colville and Charles Annis, Solarbuzz

June 23, 2010 – At first glance, the ongoing crystalline silicon (c-Si) cell capacity expansion within China and Taiwan — in evidence throughout the halls at the recent Intersolar show in Munich — should be greeted with optimism and excitement down through the PV equipment supply chain. But this was clearly not the takeaway from April’s PTS equipment-focused exhibition a few weeks back in Stuttgart. Here, toolmakers were hedging their bets on technology types being adopted for new cell lines — indeed, some of the leading tool suppliers were not even present at this show. So, why the disconnect?

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The devil is in the detail, and specifically in the process flows being implemented as part of the current capacity expansions. While high-efficiency, next-generation c-Si cell concepts have been guiding equipment types under development over the past few years, new cell capacity is firmly rooted in established (or standard) c-Si cell manufacture. The requirement from the supply chain has reverted back to legacy equipment types for key process steps. Indeed, the currently favored breed of next-generation c-Si cells are based more on incremental improvements, rather than new cell concepts featured within technology roadmaps. Incremental improvements may be based upon using square mono cells, moving from p-type to n-type substrates, or shifting to double-printed metallization at the back-end. High-efficiency turnkey c-Si lines are starting to gain traction, but not from the top-tier cell makers in production today.

This places strong demand, then, on established tool suppliers with equipment targeting key process stages in standard c-Si cell production: diffusion furnaces, PECVD SiNx tools, wet etching benches, and screen-printing. With the market share for each of these tool sets distributed amongst a relatively small group of well-known equipment suppliers, the introduction today of new players within this space should be regarded as highly significant throughout the industry. Indeed, during the build-up to Intersolar, this is exactly what happened — though with a flood of press releases coming out ahead of the Munich show, it is perhaps not surprising this was overlooked.

Israel-based Orbotech is well-known in the flat-panel display industry as the leading equipment supplier of TFT array test and automated optical inspection (AOI) equipment. Like many other leading FPD equipment companies, it has looked at the solar industry as a long-term diversification and growth opportunity. At its Investor and Analyst Day on June 8, Orbotech for the first time publicly unveiled its solar entry strategy — in 2011, the company will launch a PECVD SiNx ARC/passivation deposition tool.

Certainly, the SiNx process requires proprietary technology. PECVD film quality varies substantially by machine design and process recipe. The difficult challenge of trying to simultaneously control both antireflective coating and passivation properties within the film is probably why there are only a few competitors in this segment. Therefore, Orbotech’s move into the solar capex space seems to have come at a good time. Regardless which c-Si cell process flows are prominent over the next few years, they will all need SiNx (or similar) deposition tools. Solarbuzz forecasts the market for SiNx deposition equipment within c-Si cell lines will exceed $430M in 2010. And as solar cell manufacturers continue to emphasize high efficiency cell designs as part of long-term roadmaps, passivation becomes even more important on both the front and back surfaces of the cell. This may translate to an even faster growing market in the future.

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Historical and forecasted revenues for PECVD SiNx ARC/passivation
deposition tools used during c-Si cell production. (Source: Solarbuzz)


Finlay Colville is a senior analyst with Solarbuzz, and is responsible for reporting on solar manufacturing equipment including technologies, trends and forecasts within the solar industry. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Physics from University of Glasgow and received a PhD in Laser Physics from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. E-mail: [email protected]

Charles Annis is VP of Asia operations at Solarbuzz. He holds a Master’s Degree in Japanese Business Law from Ryukoku University, is a long time resident of Japan and manages research and client services in the Asia Pacific Region. Listen to a podcast with Annis about solar equipment spending.