New markets for electronics assemblers in energy, solar

There are currently two trends converging in the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) industry. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in markets that have not traditionally outsourced, such as photovoltaics manufacturers, are beginning to look at outsourcing as a viable business model with cost advantages. Simultaneously, EMS providers have been diversifying their customer base, expanding into markets such as alternate energy.

There are currently two trends converging in the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) industry. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in markets that have not traditionally outsourced are beginning to look at outsourcing as a viable business model with cost advantages. The photovoltaic market is no exception, with OEMs looking to outsorce silicon cell fab through module assembly. Simultaneously, EMS providers have been diversifying their customer base for some time, expanding into new markets such as alternate energy, including solar manufacturing.

While this type of manufacturing requires investments in new equipment and an understanding of new technologies, it has not traditionally outsourced to EMS companies. Partnering with EMS providers may help streamline manufacturing and reduce assembly cost through lean deployment, economies of scale, line balancing through multiple customers, as well as smart trade-offs between manual assembly and automation.

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Solder ribbon interconnecting cells in a solar cell module.
There are synergies between traditional surface mount technology (SMT) manufacturing and the requirements of the solar space. In fact, line layout and optimization in solar is very similar to SMT line layout development 20 years ago. There are also similar processes — for instance, in the production of solar modules, tabbing and stringing is a process of soldering individual solar cells together. It is manually or automatically performed, depending on silicon’s fragility, throughput, and yield required. Hot bar, magnetic induction, laser, flame, hot air, and IR soldering are all available production techniques. EMS companies can help select the best method that suits a variety of cell assemblies and optimize them for both better throughput and higher yields.

The solar market also must comply with Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) legislation in the EU, China, and elsewhere. As such, these firms must use lead-free interconnect materials and fluxes. EMS providers can draw on their previous experience with these lead-free materials, selecting the best option for solar interconnect materials to ensure the best tab and string connection quality. Other materials used in solar module manufacturing  — potting compounds for diode attach, and laminate materials such as EVA and glass that can improve the module efficiency  — can also be improved, reducing cycle time and overall cost of the assembly.

Beyond solar, there are other opportunities in the alternative energy sector, such as fuel cells and wind power. Each EMS provider must assess its geographic location and technical capability to determine whether there is a match in these markets. For example, EMS providers with high-volume automation expertise can implement fuel-cell assembly in interested markets, such as Europe.

Regardless of the strategies EMS providers use to expand into this space, it is an exciting new frontier that will present new and interesting hurdles. I am energized to be researching a new area that is environmentally conscious and technically challenging.

Irene Sterian, process engineering manager, Advanced Process Development, Celestica Corporate Engineering, may be contacted at (416) 448-5188; isterian@celestica.com.

Read Sterian’s advice for EMS providers in the tough global economy in sister publication SMT’s March/April issue, in the article“Producing Through the Downturn.”

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