Leveraging experience key to rapid learning in the PV sector

The global economy may still be suffering the effects of a downturn, but there are no doubts that these are exciting times for solar.

The global economy may still be suffering the effects of a downturn, but there are no doubts that these are exciting times for solar. The 24th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition (EU PVSEC) held in Hamburg in October, was full of the buzz of a sector in its infancy but with all the potential of a major global industry, with massive opportunity for growth.

As at all other major solar events held over the past year or two, it was also clear that, if this potential is to be realized, the solar industry must first overcome some significant challenges, and fast.

In an industry that is moving as fast as solar does today, it is imperative that we stay on top of industry trends, read the technologies and get them right first time. Yet of the many options being touted as the next great panacea, how can you distinguish the genuine article from something that could simply be a very expensive mistake? Unless, that is, you are a veteran of the electronics industry.

What the solar industry is currently experiencing is uncannily similar to what the SMT and semiconductor industries have already been through, in terms of logistics, business strategy, and yes, even technology. Even the advent of line integrators, whose task it is to help solar manufacturers design, plan and build their factories, is straight from electronics manufacturing history. Whatever your issue might be, chances are, a company with deep experience in the SMT industry will have been through it, or something similar, and will have a valuable take on the solution. That’s an enormous resource for the solar industry, one that can help to reduce the bewilderment, and increase your chances of success, significantly.

As leaders in metal deposition processes for the SMT and semiconductor industries, those experienced in mass imaging technologies can draw upon a wealth of experience in extremely demanding applications that in many ways mirror what the solar industry needs. Projects including high precision techniques such as print-on-print, selective etching and selective emitter, that will dramatically improve solar cell efficiencies, are all examples of current development work which is largely based on successful implementation in other markets. For instance, these new processes all rely on the ability to accurately and repeatedly align fine print features of ~50μm to the substrate with an accuracy of at least +/- 12.5μm. This type of print accuracy is typical of many semiconductor production processes.

Having said this, success is not just about technology. One of the things we quickly learned about the electronics industry is that every manufacturing site is unique, requires its own dedicated capabilities, and it needs them yesterday. This is true, too, of the PV market and is why sophisticated Kanban manufacturing systems that run on a just-in-time basis, with dedicated engineering on hand, are essential for quick response to customers’ requirements.

If all this sounds familiar to you, I agree. I find time and time again that the patterns we see and the lessons we learn working in the electronics industry repeat themselves some time later in the solar sector. Yes it’s new, yes the market’s different, yes the product does something never before seen, and yes, huge opportunities are there if only the production capabilities, and the logistics, and the technology, and everything else are in place. Companies in the PV sector would do well to leverage the extensive collective knowledge and experience available from colleagues and associates with semiconductor and electronics backgrounds. 

Darren Brown is Alternative Energy Business Manager at DEK, DEK Printing Machines Ltd, Granby Industrial Estate, Weymouth, Dorset, DT49TH UK; ph.: +441305 760760; email dwbrown@dek.com 

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