PV equipment standardization remains on pause — here’s how it could play out

Standardization within the PV equipment supply chain remains a challenge, but production trends over the next few years may provide some salvation. Coherent’s Finlay Colville presents three scenarios for PV cell production that impact differently on equipment and process standardization, and how the supply chain can play a proactive role.

by Finlay Colville, Coherent Inc.

March 10, 2010 – Three scenarios for PV cell production are discussed, each of which impacts differently on equipment and process standardization, and the degree to which the supply chain can play a pro-active role.

Standardization within the solar industry is currently one of the hot topics under debate, and covers a diverse range of categories. But perhaps the one commanding most headlines involves production equipment and the tooling supply chain. Naturally, with market share and equipment revenues up for grabs, there are plenty of non-altruistic motives at play down through the supply chain: but the underlying benefit to standardizing equipment tooling and process flows within such a dynamic market environment is undeniable. Indeed, there are scores of examples from other industries to support this logic. Cell makers gain access to a pool of qualified equipment suppliers and productivity improves significantly. Roadmaps encompassing efficiency, throughput and cost then fall into place, and are formulated collectively by the leading producers and key tool suppliers.Click to Enlarge

If this is so obvious, why is it not in place yet? Why is it proving so difficult to get going? And are things likely to change for the better in the near future? Let’s have a look now at the challenges facing equipment standardization today, and present three possible scenarios for PV production in the next few years. Each scenario has its own subset of guidelines for tool suppliers and each offers different prospects for equipment standardization within the industry.

Accelerated bifurcation in manufacturing approaches

The first example assumes the underlying trend of the past couple of years gathers stronger momentum: the move to either low-cost manufacturing (exemplified by c-Si cell making in Taiwan and China and thin-film panels by First Solar) or high-efficiency cell production (average efficiencies in volume production above 17%). Consequently, production would be dominated by a select group (<10) of cell makers — all manufacturing in the Asia-Pacific — who account for >90% market share. (In 2009, around 30 companies accounted for 90% of production output).

These dominant cell makers each have well-defined, in-house customized process flows, safeguarded by strong IP and patent portfolios. They define equipment required for their lines initially as a packaged RFQ, with suppliers competing for the business as though in a tendering exercise. In time, a handful of tool builders with key equipment for these process flows establish strong working relationships with the various market leaders, thereby influencing next generation tool build. Equipment manufacturers in Taiwan and Korea become more actively engaged in this scenario as well.

Collectively, this restricted group of dominant cell manufacturers and equipment suppliers form a quorum (or partnership) that defines not just equipment and processes, but ultimately standardization and roadmaps within the industry. Tooling for specific cell producers is tweaked to suit their unique process requirements.

Supply-chain drives technology, spearheaded by turnkey lines

In this scenario, production from turnkey lines explodes during 2011-2013. Existing turnkey lines (both c-Si and thin-film) are ramped up with high utilization rates and low cost structures. Production from turnkey lines moves from ~11% of worldwide output in 2009 to >50% by 2013, and turnkey custodians emerge with repeat orders for capacity expansion. High-efficiency c-Si turnkey lines make an immediate impact with cell producers, as the different selective emitter approaches each demonstrate significant cost-benefit advantages. Existing c-Si turnkey lines are upgraded to high efficiency by the equipment suppliers. All a:Si turnkey lines operate with multi-junction layers and high efficiency.

Turnkey lines or “factories” have historically been marketed to different audiences at different times. First, there was the new entrant motivated by fast tracking a recipe for low cost, either by thin-film manufacture or economy-of-scale via a GW c-Si fab concept. (GW fabs require access to considerable finance and involve timescales of several years before completion; neither is particularly attractive in today’s climate.) Then there are the high-efficiency turnkey lines which dominated the PVSEC exhibition in Hamburg a few months ago.

This is a double-edged sword, however. While the argument can be made that turnkey lines offer a fast track route for cell makers to move into high-efficiency territory — by eliminating any extensive R&D program that can take up to five years to perfect — exactly the same requirement applies to turnkey line supply. The turnkey line suppliers, similar to the cell makers, need to go through precisely the same learning curve, and one that is potentially more challenging since they don’t have volume generated statistics (yield, cost, market acceptance) from production to guide them initially. Moreover, it is prudent to recall that high efficiency success (in volume production) has historically been the exclusive domain of cell makers with highly skilled R&D teams (e.g. Sunpower, Sanyo) or strategic alignment with a leading R&D institute.

In this case however, the turnkey suppliers become the dominant voice in equipment supply and standardization.

Status quo ante

Lastly, things could remain the same as before, with a fragmented (and often regionalized) supply chain satisfying a wide variety of technical approaches. Diverse opportunities down the supply chain continue to offer rich pickings for both turnkey and standalone equipment suppliers. Production output is still characterized by a mix of in-house custom-built lines, turnkey lines, and modular line builds using similar equipment supplied within the turnkey lines. Capex forecasting remains challenging, with considerable equipment spend assigned to the multitude of PV players currently at start-up or pilot-line stage.

This is the toughest environment within which to force through standardization, with a variety of competing voices seeking to influence future directions. And in many ways, this explains just why standardization of process flows and related equipment has been so hard to establish up until now.

Although barely two months into the year, there are nonetheless strong indicators that equipment supply in 2010 will follow a similar path compared to last year. It may simply be that standardization and roadmaps for the equipment supply chain need to wait just a little longer until production technologies reach an equilibrium that brings with it more clarity for all concerned.

Finlay Colville is director of solar marketing at Coherent Inc., Santa-Clara, CA, USA. E-mail: finlay.colville@coherent.com; phone: +44-7802 238-775.

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