Making sense of chaos02 / 2012, Industry & Suppliers | By: Shamsiah Ali-Oettinger
Automation standards: It has become common knowledge that with the implementation of automation, product quality significantly improves and costs can potentially be cut. Are standards in such automation necessary? What are the pros and cons of such standards?
It often seems like a PV production plant is one big chaotic ball of processes, communication lines and equipment, all trying to pump out PV products at the best speeds, quality and quantity possible. Behind every action that occurs, however, is a meticulously planned process. Deciphering and streamlining these different processes can be made easier with the implementation of standards.
PV production plants have come a long way, having learned a lot from the wise big brother, the semiconductor. When the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI) developed the initial standards for the semiconductor sector, it came as a welcome factor in process analysis and identification of opportunities for improvement within the line. The Generic Equipment Model (GEM) and SEMI Equipment Communications Standard (SECS), semiconductor equipment interface protocols for equipment-to-host data communications, gave the industry the standards needed for a commonality in equipment behavior and communications capabilities. Embracing these standards then allowed the equipment makers to develop automation equipment that they knew would fit into manufacturers’ plants and be able to function seamlessly.
SEMI launched the beginning of streamlined production with a common understanding across the sector through their semiconductor standards. Years later, they saw the need for the same standards derivation process to occur in the PV sector. Being a dynamic and evolving industry, manufacturers in the PV sector seek to reduce overall production costs to boost solar power’s competitiveness. Automation is, after all, a key enabler of this objective. FPE Fischer’s Florian Peinecke and Thomas Hoffmeister collectively assert that automation is crucial: “Any automation increases the cost effectiveness and the reproducible quality standard, [particularly because] cost and technological competitive advantages in the module and module manufacturing processes are still fairly low compared to other industries. [Thus,] automation is imminent for the PV industry[‘s] success”.
Different applications and the dozens of communication paths that arise with automation pose a wide range of manufacturing challenges. This is precisely the reason why having some sort of industry standards can not only cater to smoother production, but also result in a set of common parameters and terminology.
In 2010, SEMI formed the PV Automation Standards Committee, with initial committees in Japan and Europe. The aim is to focus exclusively on automation related issues: equipment-to-equipment communication, cell transport carriers, and single substrate tracking. The counterpart PV Committees then took the reins of continuing to handle the non-automation issues related to materials and test methods (see graph SEMI PV Standards Organization).
This PV Automation Committee was an important milestone for the industry. The PV Automation Committee in Europe is co-chaired by Tino Korner (Q-Cells), Martin Zennig (Jonas & Redmann), and Eberhard Teichmann (Peer Group), and the PV Automation Committee in Japan is co-chaired by Emi Ishikawa (Atelier Ishikawa) and Terry Asakawa (Tokyo Electron).
For the development of the automation standards the industry, namely PVmanufacturers, equipment suppliers, third party software providers and research institutes, came together to form critical task forces (TF/s). Three TFs are to be noted.
PV Equipment Interface Specification (EIS) TF: This is the other task force led by Zennig and Manz Automation’s Mathias Glaser. The aim of the TF is to specify and define a unified equipment communication interface for PV production systems. The new standard, SEMI PV2-0709E, Guide for PV Equipment Communication Interfaces (PVECI), was one outcome of the committee. The PV2-0709E simplified the SECS/GEM application. Ballot 4804 for the specification of ‘Horizontal Communication between Equipment for PV Fabrication System’ is being reworked by the EIS TF. Other ballots are also under development.
PV Transport Carrier TF: The TF led by Korner, Fraunhofer’s Joachim Seidelman and Entegris’ Jurgen Lundgren is appointed to develop standards needed for unified transport entities for production systems, namely boxes, cassettes and carriers. The first standard will focus on 156 millimeter (mm) by 156 mm product sizes for wafer and cell transport carriers for use in crystalline PV manufacturing. Director of SEMI International Standards James Amano states that as manufacturers and equipment suppliers spend significant amounts of time and effort on material handling, they are thereby distracted from focusing on their core competencies. With the standardization of equipment load ports and transport systems, direct and indirect cost savings occur, there is less risk during ramp-up and integration of production lines require less effort.
PV Wafer Traceability TF: This TF is led by István Győry from Innovation Engineering & Services. The aim is to develop standards for PV wafer identification from the cut ingot (wafer) to the end of – and inclusive of – module production. Ballots are under review and development. This TF’s future plans may also revolve around investigating anti-counterfeiting possibilities, recycling issues and application guides for PV wafer traceability.
Martin Zennig from the Berlin automation technology company Jonas & Redmann explains why standards in this segment are useful. Zennig tells pv magazine, “In order to streamline processes wherever possible, [and] save time and costs, standards are useful in the automation field. Efficient process automation is an important factor on the path to grid parity. Together with other leading standards, cost savings are achieved along the entire value chain and the quality of the production process is ensured”.
Renewable Energy Corporation’s Chief Technical Officer (CTO) Erik Sauar adds, “Standards make it easier for different equipment and process developers to ensure that new tools under development will have maximum compatibility with other equipment, either upstream or downstream, in future manufacturing lines. This again will increase the possibility of starting up new manufacturing lines with new and improved tools, but still with predictable and reliable production processes”.
Standards in PV are necessary to bring the global supplier and customer communities together as well as to collectively reduce the number of options in a given process as Debasish Paul Choudhury, President of SEMI India, adds in a presentation given at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. The development of such standards will additionally enable new companies to easily enter the supply chain to meet growing demand. Frequently, there are large companies that may hold sufficient power to block smaller companies from entering the market due to their patented technology being adopted as the norm. Sauar highlights consistency as another advantage, “[Standards] ensure greater consistency across the industry and in particular favor small and independent equipment and material developers.” The whole aim of forming these automation TFs was to “reduce the effort equipment suppliers have to spend to develop and maintain a variety of equipment communication interfaces, and establish the foundation for deploying advanced factory management and control software systems”. Integration of equipment is a cumbersome as well as costly process. With standardized interfaces and tools, costs can be reduced and integration becomes easier. Matthias Meier, Project Manager, Fraunhofer IPA, states in a presentation, “Approaching factory automation standards for the PV industry, the expected benefits of the PV2 standard would also be to reduce the complexity and the cost on the host side.” The cost reduction can be seen in the graph, “Expected cost benefit of SEMI PV2.” Zennig highlights Jonas & Redmann’s example of adoption. The company has adopted the PV2 standard, offering IT interfaces that are compatible with the standard. “This standard was co-developed by Jonas & Redmann. When properly applied, the PV2 offers the PV sector a very good tool for solving a number of challenges related to production-related IT: the standard promises, on one hand, the reduction of the need for factory planning and commissioning efforts and also enables the use of powerful software systems for factory management and control. Developers benefit from this norm as individual IT interfaces need not be developed for each client. A standard that has been applied shortens project lead times and thus reduces cost to both supplier and customer,” he highlights to pv magazine.
Amano states on the SEMI website that via the creation and implementation of the PV2 standard, major production line processes can now be fully automated by shop floor IT systems that rely on communications with production equipment. The PV2 is also gaining momentum in the sector. Meier adds in his presentation that the industry seems willing to pick up and use the new standard and that the relevance to automation standards is basically accepted by wide parts of the European industry.
SEMI, of course, cannot work alone to define such standards. In the process of deriving standards, companies and committees are roped in to contribute. SEMI’s notable partners for development include companies like Applied Materials, Fraunhofer, GCL, Jonas & Redmann, Manz Automation, Meyer Burger, REC Silicon and Suntech among others. SEMI realizes that pre-competitive collaboration is difficult but the standards program actually benefits the industry as a whole. Having understood this, more companies have been willing to participate.
Clashing with IP
The implementation of automation standards is not a simple, smooth ride. The process is long and tedious and sees the need for various stakeholders to come together and mutually agree on standardizing in a particular way. The PV EIS Task Force made the decision to adapt SECS/GEM instead of working out a new XML-based solution. SEMI’s Executive Director, PV Group, Bettina Weiss states in a presentation that the standard was not possible without a “sufficient level of pain” from stakeholders. Reddig adds that a standard usually does not succeed if “stakeholders wish to introduce proprietary products and methods.” Additionally, “if different solutions already exist, some stakeholders will need to give up certain proprietary solutions and adapt a common standard.” Thereby, not all manufacturers may see automation necessary because of the “pain” factor involved in having to conform.
Standards, in a way, mean to conform and patents mostly highlight a form of uniqueness in the product, process or application. How constraining is conformity? Peinecke and Hoffmeister of FPE Fischer highlight that perhaps standards in automation are not all that necessary in such a scenario: “We don’t believe that standards in automation are intrinsically necessary. Contrary to safety standards, standards for automation limit the chance for new development and innovations. The lack of innovation is, to some extent, to blame for the severe price competition in the PV market. The great advantage of the German ‘Mittelstand’ (Small and Medium Enterprises), as seen in other industries, lies not only on the product innovations but also its breakthroughs in processes and automation. This has yet to be seen in the PV industry.” FPE Fischer has not been in a situation where it has had to give up its proprietary solution for the sake of standards. Nevertheless, if such solutions do clash with incoming standards, the FPE Fischer experts state that it can possibly lead to new opportunities, like cooperation and agreements with module manufacturers or machine makers.
Sauar admits that proprietary solutions may indeed clash with the automation standards: “This is of course possible, and in particular for wafer tracing there has been a discussion whether or not the industry wanted to choose a standard that was under the control of one or another company. There have also been a few other such situations in PV, but in general, a standard should not depend on any company’s IP (intellectual property).” He also tells pv magazine that when standards are chosen, it is important that all IP owners disclose their protected technology. This is required in order to support innovation and fair competition.
In Jonas & Redmann’s conforming to the PV2 and with regards to overriding possibilities of proprietary solutions, Zennig says, “The setting of standards does not affect these dynamics in our view.” He also adds that the company has not “given up” any technology for the standards.
Automation cost factor
Technical Advisor and Chief Representative, Europe at Shanghai New Energy
Industry Association (SNEIA), Nabih Cherradi, says that cost is huge factor, especially when looking at the implementation of automation in PV lines all over China. “[These manufacturers…] need to understand that through automation, problems [wafer breakage, quality deficits…] can be avoided and costs can be eliminated.” Automation capital costs may also seem rather large as part of the entire PV plant investment, as opposed to manual labor. “Just because of automation introduction into the line, perhaps, the cost will be more. Here in China, the automation equipment has to be sourced from countries like Germany and equipment is extremely expensive,” he adds. The CAPEX then increases, which is another factor to take into account.
Reddig, however, explains in his paper for the Photovoltaics International Journal that “the costs of automation usually do not contribute very much to the manufacturing costs.” He points out that for thin film, the costs constitute 25 to 35 percent of total production costs. For crystalline, wafer and cell manufacturing, it constitutes less than 25 percent and for modules, costs fall below 10 percent. Zennig also pins the percentage of equipment costs to about 20 percent. For production, the percentage of cost for automation is very much dependent on the level of automation as well.
To add weight to the argument that automation is a worthwhile investment, SEMI states that the aim of its standards is to “enhance the manufacturing efficiency and capability and shorten time-to-market so as to reduce manufacturing cost of the PV industry.” Therefore, the long-term benefit is the easing of the overall cost burden on the manufacturers.
Freeing the roadblocks
The implementation of the automation standards is one way of clearing roadblocks, similar to the experience of the semiconductor sector. SECS and GEM have proven themselves as value-adders to the semiconductor sector, reducing costs and increasing throughput and efficiency. PV2 can be expected to reap similar benefits in the PV sector, make the sailing, perhaps, smoother for PV manufacturers. Having a standard interface will reduce costs, as it did for the semiconductor sector; additionally reduce development time, thus shortening ramp-ups; and simplify requirement specifications. There are, nevertheless, the questions of IP and whether companies will or can conform to the standards that are implemented. This, of course in a large manner, depends on the close collaboration between SEMI and the players in the PV automation sector. Thus far, with the PV2, no stark problems have arisen. All future developments, however, still need to go from the SEMI drawing board into implementation via the industry players.
Additionally, Fraunhofer’s Meier sees the advance development of standards as an issue. He states that it still seems difficult and points to the lack of experts available for standards development. Sauar warns that it is important to be aware of the possible disadvantages of too early or too strong standardization when the standards are chosen. Above all, what is crucial for successful standards is keeping up with changes in the industry. In Zennig’s words, this means that even after the automation standards are implemented, it is important that the standards are continually reviewed and modified when necessary.