Dialog First, Collaboration to Come
Dialog First, Collaboration to Come
Suppliers and Cell/Module Manufacturers Meet at U.S. PV Fab Managers Forum
U.S. PV fab managers and their key suppliers in North America struggled to find common ground at the inaugural North American PV Fab Managers Forum, held on July 12, the day before Intersolar North America in San Francisco. While cell and module manufacturers and equipment and materials suppliers may have brought differing agendas to the historic meeting, as the first Fab Managers Forum in the U.S., the industry may have passed a critical milestone towards productive dialog and collaboration.
Dan Martin, executive VP, SEMI Global PV Standards and Technology
The PV Fab Managers Forum at Intersolar North America was new to North America, but the event follows the successful format of the European PV Fab Managers Forum, held annually in Germany for the last four years. The event is designed for executives and business leaders from the PV industry, fab managers, lead engineers from wafer-, cell-, bulk silicon and thin film module manufacturers, and executives, strategists, product managers and technical experts from suppliers to the industry. The intent is to identify critical needs and issues by key manufacturing stakeholders and determine meaningful action items for industry-wide resolution — all this in the spirit of continued efforts to drive manufacturing cost down, cell efficiency up and process inefficiencies out.
The event was attended by executives from SunPower, First Solar, Solyndra, SolarWorld, and other cell/module and panel makers — and key suppliers including Applied Materials, Spire, DuPont, Oerlikon, KLA-Tencor and many others. Also speaking at the conference were representatives from NREL, UL, Solaicx, Dow Corning, DuPont, M+W Group, and several others. The one-day conference was followed by a reception.
The forum began with a controversial prediction from Dr. Chris Hartshorn, research director at Lux Research in the opening keynote. “In the past, the subsidy-driven market determined industry structure,” he said. It was relatively easy to make money in solar and vertically integrated manufacturers of both crystalline silicon and thin-film solar energy products could grow with the level of government subsidy. In the future, technology and manufacturing differentiation will become more important and the “value chain structure” will depend on specialization. In other words, “vertical integration will unwind” and market valuation will be based on core competencies.
Dr. Ryne Raffaelle, director, National Center for Photovoltaics, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), whose annual budget is dwarfed — not only by China, but surprisingly by Australia as well — sees solar at the early stages of commercialization. While focused on long-term research and innovation, even Dr. Raffaelle emphasized supply chain issues as critical barriers to industry growth, saying there are “no process standards…no deployment standards…no materials standards.”
SolarWorld 500MW Cell and Module fab in Hillsboro, OR
Rick Whitney, president and CEO, M+W Group U.S., provided key insights in PV plant location and construction considerations. Whitney sees the “trend toward the mega-fab” emphasizing scale in the range of 200MW-400MW. Most plants in the U.S. are in the pilot line size of 20MW. Key economies of scale issues are space utilization, productivity of equipment, chemical and gas logistics, and alternative building concepts (multi-story c-Si plants). A large part of Whitney’s presentation focused on site selection considerations that are heavily influenced by state and local government incentives, including tax relief and direct grants. In the future, Whitney sees fewer, better funded organizations in the value chain. M+W Group has built over 7.7GW of the world’s total 12-13GW production capacity so their perspectives and insights were appreciated.
A highlight of the conference was the presentation by Gordon Brinser, vice president, Operations, SolarWorld Industries America, which challenged suppliers to perform better in specific and actionable areas. SolarWorld, headquartered in Germany, is the largest manufacturer of PV and a vertically integrated company from silicon to complete solar systems in the U.S. They operate a 500MW cell and module plant in Hillsboro, OR. SolarWorld chose the site based on proximity to key markets (lower inventory, shipping costs), ability to work quickly and directly with customers, and enable faster improvement in cycle times. In addition, the U.S. location benefitted from state and local incentives.
Brinser challenged suppliers to “focus on the fundamentals” and address meaningful cost reductions in the bill of materials. Over 70 percent of the manufacturing costs are on BOM items such as paste, graphite, glass, and frames. He emphasized “lean” tools that optimize space and watts per square foot. Equipment suppliers need to reduce tool weight and complications arising from structural requirements. Suppliers must drive reductions in overall installation and startup times and reduce maintenance costs and time requirements.
Brinser is a strong supporter of manufacturing standards. They are essential to “speed initial connection and startup, (reduce) cost of maintenance and troubleshooting and provide flexibility to accommodate innovation.” Too many suppliers still cannot provide basic interface requirements out of the box. He cautioned suppliers to avoid “creeping elegance” where new features add cost without economic benefit and strongly supported environmentally and socially sustainable business practices, especially in packaging, consumables use, and end-of-life.
TK Kallenbach, executive vice president at First Solar, also provided specific and actionable information on the leading manufacturing and technology requirements for thin film production. On First Solar’s “pathway to 16 percent efficiency,” Kallenbach highlighted the following areas:
Kallenbach emphasized the need for state of the art technology, “at scale.” To achieve this, the company practices “Copy Smart” where new technology can transfer to volume production without unnecessary cost or time requirements. Each future manufacturing facility is designed to ramp to equivalent yield, quality and rates as existing locations. After many years of learning, First Solar has a highly developed process for scaling new lines with established protocols for R&D-to-production ramps.
Supplier presentations on product roadmaps, collaboration requirements and industry gaps were provided by representatives from KLA-Tencor, Applied Materials, DuPont, Dow Corning, Oerlikon and Spire. Some of the interesting observations included:
As an inaugural event, North American PV Fab Managers Forum did not create the level of focused, practical dialog between suppliers and manufacturers as achieved in Europe, it was a solid foundation for collaborative interchanges in the future. Information was rich, but industry action items were lacking this year. Closer ties are needed between supply chain stakeholders’ manufacturing wants and needs in order to collectively move towards higher productivity and lower cost. However, during the day and at the post-conference reception, participants were vocal on the need for the U.S. Fab Managers Forum to grow next year with more working break-out sessions and key “issues sets” identified and addressed. With the U.S. market poised for substantial growth over the years, the maturity and robustness of the supply chain combined with effective, industry-wide collaboration models will be a key factor in both the rate of growth for demand and U.S.-based supply.
SEMI PV Group - July 2010