Closer PV cooperation needed

30. September 2011 By:  Michael Fuhs/Alan Faulcon

Solar cell and module manufacturers will have to cooperate more closely with machinery and systems manufacturers. This was one of the central demands made at a meeting of Solarinput that brought all of the participants together in Germany’s Erfurt.

Crowd shot at 2011 PV Meets Machinery and Systems Manufacturing event

The PV Meets Machinery and Systems Manufacturing event was attended by a total of 160 experts. Image: Solarinput e.V.

At this year’s event "PV Meets Machinery and Systems Manufacturing", industry representatives demanded that mechanical engineers, as well as cell and module manufacturers improve their networking. Successes to date are based on the interaction of the two industries and the research institutes in the region.

The export quota on the part of German mechanical engineering for photovoltaic production equipment – which employs a workforce of approximately 12,000 – was 84 percent in the year 2010.

Although this is an impressive figure, it is nevertheless not a reason to be satisfied. That was the essence of the event, which was attended by a total of 160 experts in Erfurt on Wednesday.

The German Engineering Federation (VDMA) determined that the number of orders for Germany has already declined. A comparison with figures from the international semiconductor association, Semi proffers the conclusion that incoming orders in general are not only to blame, but that German mechanical engineers are possibly losing market shares as well.

That is not completely surprising. Thus Silvia Roth, vice-president for marketing at the photovoltaic systems manufacturer Roth & Rau indicated that mechanical engineers from Asia already offer equipment for seven of the ten process steps.
"We can only try to offer new technologies and stay the well-known step ahead,"she said.

However, there is a lot of potential for improvement. The yield of the photovoltaic production systems is still far below what is customary for the semiconductor industry. For example, it makes sense to design production plants in such a way that wafers are less frequently transshipped from one carrier to another.

Not only the cell and module manufacturers, but also machinery and systems manufacturers are exposed to enormous competitive pressure.

In the case of machines a "price reduction of 18 to 20 percent per year," must be possible for cells and modules says Peter Fath, CTO of the system manufacturer Centrotherm and chairman of the VDMA ‘Federation Platform PV Production Technology’.

Against much resistance, he introduced the so-called "designed to cost" procedure at Centrotherm in order to be successful. Apart from the technical specifications, the requirements to be met by costs are defined and simultaneously implemented in a structured procedure already when it comes to the planning new machines.

A machine would then only be developed if production becomes 30 percent cheaper. However, for German mechanical engineers it is a hopeless venture to just develop cheaper equipment. They have to also be better and, for example, produce faster.

Yet when it comes to development, the mechanical engineers have lost sight of the cell manufacturers. The first systems were still developed together with the cell manufacturers. After the know-how moved away with the machines, the manufacturers in this country became secluded.

Now mechanical engineering companies and systems manufacturers such as Centrotherm have their own development departments. Nevertheless, Peter Fath admitted that photovoltaic production in Germany would be desirable – and is not impossible. He is of the opinion that it would certainly be competitive given proper planning.

Eric Maiser, managing director of VDMA Photovoltaic Production Equipment, therefore recommends more pre-competitive cooperation between mechanical engineers and photovoltaic technology manufacturers. "It is important in order to support the photovoltaic industry in Europe," he stressed. However, it is not clear how this can be achieved, because cartel law is also a factor in this regard.

Silvia Roth made it clear that Roth & Rau gladly cooperates with European manufacturers. For example, in the case of so-called HIT technology, for which the company developed a pilot line. This is the same cell technology with which Sanyo manufactures highly efficiency cells.

For three years, no company in Germany was willing to invest in this technology. Asian manufacturers on the other hand stood in line at Roth & Rau and at some point after all the aim is to make a sale. However, she is also clear about the fact that the greatest success factor for local machinery and systems manufacturers is the "big three" of precisely these companies, the cell and module manufacturers as well as the research facilities in the region.

The organizers Solarinput and VDMA East aimed to promote precisely this cooperation with the event. This appeared to success in the case of one topic in particular.

The Berlin photovoltaic company ib vogt optimizes logistics as well as the supply and disposal of manufacturing plants. With the factories that they have been involved with up to now the costs for electricity and cooling were lowered on the average by 33 percent, waste water by 50 percent and for exhaust air 70 percent.

Thus managing director Dagmar Vogt sees huge potential savings – including in Germany. The factories in this country were established in the boom phase under the premise of quickly attaining high production figures and not to handle resources as economically as possible. This clearly interested the photovoltaic manufacturers in attendance.

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