Stion: Thin films, big ambitions


In a photovoltaic market that is fiercely competitive, being a relatively new arrival presents a number of challenges. In fact it has caused CIGS startup Stion to adjust its strategy and avail itself to new opportunities. Importantly however, it has not deterred the company from the goal of bringing its thin film modules to market.

Stion employs a sputtered CIGS deposition method to produce black, glass-on-glass product. The slick, uniform deposition is clean and, quite simply, looks good. But if the modules themselves look familiar, it’s because you may have seen them at tradeshows earlier this year. Taiwanese semiconductor giant, TSMC has licensed Stion’s technology and is slowly building its manufacturing capacity at its five-story fab. In the deal, Stion attracted a US$51 million investment from TSMC affiliate, VentureTech Alliance.

While seeing its modules roll off the TSMC production line, Stion has followed through with its plans to bring to market its modules, but has developed its commercial manufacturing far from the San Francisco Bay Area. Ramping up to full capacity will take time and cash, and whether Stion can achieve the ambitious cost and efficiency goals it has set itself is yet to be seen. pv magazine visited Stion’s San Jose headquarters and pilot line to find out.

Inside Stion

There’s certainly not a shortage of space at the Stion headquarters outside of San Jose, around 80 kilometers south of San Francisco. Many of the cubicles in the office space sit empty and an adjacent building, which was to house Stion’s first production fab, is empty. But it’s not a result of the company cutting back on staff or backing down from its commitment to manufacturer its glass-on-glass CIGS modules. Stion, while remaining a Californian company, has taken its commercial production elsewhere.

In October 2011, Stion opened its first fab in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The company was attracted thereby an aggressive recruitment effort led by the Mississippi Development Authority, the availability of a world-class building in the university town of Hattiesburg, and a strong incentive package including a low-interest US$75 million loan facility from the state government. A 100 megawatt (MW) fab is what the company hopes will be the first stage of its commercial production, although at present its operating far below that capacity.

"We began construction in the Hattiesburg plant in March 2011 and shipped our first commercial panel a year later," said Frank Yang, Stion’s VP of Business Development and Marketing. "This fast start-up would not have been possible without a team effort from both Stion and numerous state and local agencies, as well as our construction vendors on the project."

When establishing the Mississippi production facility, many of Stion’s new hires slated for California were shifted to the southern state and other engineers have spent extended periods finalizing the technology transfer; hence the empty desks. But Marty Finkbeiner, executive vice president of Global Operations with the company, says the team remaining in California is set to stay. "At the end of the day you do things where there are strengths," explains Finkbeiner. "Mississippi offers some exceptional operational resources, particularly from a speed-to-market perspective, but California still has unmatched R&D talent because of the long track record our local universities have in advanced materials development."

Stion still maintains its pilot line in California, which is primarily for R&D and small-volume production of new products. While operating very much like a lab as opposed to an automated fab, that’s not to detract from what the company has achieved with its products and its costs, according to Finkbeiner, in both California and Mississippi.

"Small but strong," are the words Stion’s operations head choses to sum up the company’s ethos and way of pursuing its goals. And its efficiency and cost-reduction roadmap is clearly ambitious. Currently producing modules at a rough average of 12.5 percent module efficiency, Stion has had a 145 W module from its production line independently verified as coming in at 13.4 percent, and has since produced circuits close to 150 watts. Its goal is to make strides towards 15 percent by the end of the year, a goal that is nothing if not bold.

In terms of cost reductions, Stion also believes it has the technology that can deliver an impressive cost structure. The figure so often used as a goal in the photovoltaic industry of late, US0.50/W is also the goal Stion has set itself in terms of cost. And for a timeframe? The company hopes to push toward the level of First Solar and leading crystalline manufacturers in the next year, then hit $0.50 as it further scales production. Once again, ambition is not in short supply.

To realize this cost structure, Finkbeiner acknowledges that utilization rates will have to increase, but says at the moment the company is showing real commitment to the goal. "We have to manically pay every attention to detail from cost-per-watt because at the end of the day, that’s what’s going make or break any business."

Stion’s change of tack, from manufacturing on-site in California to heading down to Mississippi, has required the company to tackle a wide range of challenges in a short period of time. "New location, new team, new personnel, new equipment, new process, new product," says Finkbeiner. "Not many companies undertake that."

Financial backing

While the operations team is very much focused on hitting production goals and tuning processes, Stion’s business team has been attracting support from further afield. Aside from the TSMC deal, Stion attracted $130 million in equity investment from a range of partners including thin film equipment supplier AVACO, whose capabilities will help enhance Stion’s high-volume, standardized production tooling, and a consortium of Korean private equity investors. In the deal, Stion committed to establishing a Korean subsidiary to see the construction of a module fab in the region. Existing Stion investors also participated in the financing round.

The investment will certainly provide the company with funds to move its production plans forward and get modules into the field, to build a track record. It’s also reasonable to assume that having the TSMC modules, with Stion’s technology, will assist somewhat with this process.

Marty Finkbeiner adds that this latest round of investment, closed at the end of 2011, also shows validation in Stion’s technology and methods. "The money and the funding hasn’t really been coming from within the US," he explains, "that’s what Stion has recently found and I think we’ve got access to the money we need."

Confidently looking to the future, Finkbeiner explains the he and the firm are beginning to look outside of the company’s own processes and more deeply into the market as some of the process challenges have been overcome. In the end, however, he concludes that the focus on process is what will pay off. "We’ll continue to get access to the money we need with the performance of what we’re doing here with the product and the production efficiencies."

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