Survival strategies


Recently, the PV equipment arm of the German engineering association VDMA forecast that machinery suppliers would benefit from a 27% increase in sales in 2014. Coming after 2013, arguably any increase is a positive development. If demand in 2014 reaches 49 GW, up from 36 GW last year, then it means that a new cycle of spending on equipment will begin next year. Drilling down further, VDMA expects to see a growing share of rising sales attributed to demand for tools that can be used to produce high efficiency cells, as well as demand for more standard equipment for increasing productivity.
Many of the PV industry’s machinery suppliers have been heavily reliant on strategies of supplying into divergent markets to see them through, seeing increased sales in other industries, such as displays, automotive, semiconductor, packaging and medical, to offset the poor sales in an industry that almost halved in 2013. Even Switzerland-based Meyer Burger Group, which faced a difficult market situation in the solar industry during most of last year, was able to rely on a chunky CHF40 million ($44 million) order for its diamond wire cutting machines and material for a non-PV application.
Another of these companies is Teamtechnik, which will be exhibiting the TT1600, its new stringer platform, during Intersolar Europe in Munich. In addition to PV, the company also supplies manufacturers in the automotive and medical sectors.
Teamtechnik saw a rebound in PV sales in the last quarter of 2013 and the first quarter of this year, partly due to strongdemand for end-user markets in China and Japan as well as progress towards a resolution of the anti-dumping tariffs in Europe that dominated the industry and suppressed demand in Europe in 2013. The sales outlook for the next few months is decent, though not as positive as late 2013 and early 2014. Like other suppliers, Teamtechnik expects the PV industry’s much-anticipated new spending cycle for financing new capacity investments to start in earnest early next year.
The company’s latest offering for the solar industry, the TT1600 power stringer, is based on the TT 1200HS, which was developed for rapid operation. The TT1600, with 45 MWp performance, is faster, increasing the output rate of the TT1200HS by 200 cycles and capable of soldering a cell every 2.25 seconds. Usually, only systems with dual soldering lines operate at similar speeds. Teamtechnik’s is a single-track system designed to increase the throughput on each soldering process. A single track also requires far fewer spare parts and operators than a dual-track equivalent, cutting production costs.
Teamtechnik’s main markets for its stringer systems are in Asia. However, the company is one of a growing number of equipment suppliers, which include M+W Group, Meyer Burger, Schmid Group, Singulus and others that, in the last six months or so, have all reported sales in new markets, as opposed to China, for their PV production lines and services. For Teamtechnik, these markets are in southeast Europe, including Turkey and Greece, where orders are for upgrades and replacements. Here, local PV module manufacturers are interested in the technologies that work quickest. The trend in the region, and in neighboring Eastern Europe, also extends to expanding existing production sites and locating new ones. Late last year, BOD Group started up a new crystalline silicon PV production line in Lithuania based on a line supplied by Singulus Technologies, headquartered in Karl am Main, Germany.
In an increasingly competitive market, Teamtechnik is emphasizing service, guaranteeing that it will supply its systems quickly, even if large numbers are required. “We can supply five stringers per week, equivalent to 250 MW performance, so our customers can have large projects in production in just a few weeks. This applies both to individual stringer production systems, and to our 90 MW complete systems, which consist of two TT1600 stringers and a layup,” said Teamtechnik’s executive VP for solar, Axel Riethmüller. The company, headquartered in Freiberg, has been manufacturing in Jintan, China, since 2010. The stringer systems produced in Germany are shipped to the plant in China as a kit and assembled there.
In the future, Riethmüller says the company anticipates new sources of demand from other parts of Asia, such as Thailand and Malaysia, as well as the Middle East, North Africa and South America. These emerging markets are newer and will entail risk – requiring suppliers to invest locally in order to attract new business – but long-term it means that PV equipment suppliers will no longer be reliant on orders originating from one major market in the form of China.
Riethmüller expects tier one PV manufacturers will move fast to take advantage of these opportunities, investing in localized manufacturing and assembly to ensure that they have a strong foothold in key strategic emerging markets. Local production plays a certain role, agrees Florian Wessendorf VDMA Photovoltaic Equipment’s MD. “Latin America, MENA and South Africa are ‘buzz’ xAdvertisement

Key points

  • Experts within the PV equipment industry anticipate sales demand to reach 49 GW this year, up from 36 GW in 2013.
  • Such a boost is a result of many PV companies diversifying into other markets in an attempt to tackle poor sales.
  • This expansion has helped the sector rebound, with growing demand from end-user markets in China and Japan, as well as the resolution of anti-dumping disputes in the EU.
  • As the PV industry moves from policy-led to commercially driven, the onus is on equipment manufacturers to respond to demand to drive down costs.
  • Some leading companies have developed high-efficient technology, or expanded their product offering, in an effort to survive.

markets in this context. Nevertheless, the main part of PV production will remain in Asia,” he said.

A commercially driven industry

While demand is unlikely in the near future to witness the great surge that characterized previous years, of far greater significance is PV’s transition from a policy-led to a commercially driven industry, where the onus is on manufacturers to continue driving down costs and manufacturing cells that achieve higher efficiencies. This phase – where heavy subsidy gives way to steady and sustainable growth – should begin in the next two years, according to Riethmüller. Indeed, in many markets, especially in more mature ones found in western and southern Europe, this transition is already happening.
Despite VDMA Photovoltaic Equipment’s optimistic forecast of a 27% increase in PV manufacturing equipment sales for 2014, Richard Hendel, international sales manager at laser systems supplier Rofin-Baasel, estimates the next growth cycle (expected to start at the end of 2014) to be in the region of 10 – 20% when compared with the demand in 2009. However, he is of the opinion that this will be “sustainable growth, in waves, similar to the semiconductor industry.” Rofin-Baasel has developed an upgraded version of its Dula Line c-Si laser processing platform. The latest system can lower processing costs in the volume production of high efficiency passivated emitter and rear cells (PERC) c-Si solar cells. The latest Dual Line c-Si was recently launched at the SNEC International Photovoltaic Power Generation Exhibition, in Shanghai.
According to Hendel, the Dual Line c-Si laser processing platform has been installed at several leading PV manufacturers’ factories with high efficiency cell roadmaps.
As part of the collaborative Future-Fab project, supported by the BMBF (German Ministry of Education and Research), Rofin-Baasel began developing laser techniques for high-efficiency cells. During the project, the company investigated short wavelength and short pulse laser tool requirements in order to minimize sub-surface damage during rear-side contact hole formation and optimize rear side passivation.
The Future-Fab partners, which also included International Solar Energy Research Center Konstanz, found rear side passivation opening using nanosecond laser pulses, after the back surface field formation, leads to equally high cell efficiencies as opposed to more complex ultrashort femto and picosecond lasers. Rofin-Baasel subsequently optimized the process with industrial lasers that increase power five-fold, compared with the nanosecond laser source. This enables reductions in laser process cycle times for each wafer and improves wafer throughput.
The Dual Line c-Si can be equipped with a high power nanosecond second-harmonic generation (SHG) laser, with a beam profile that is developed for the creation of larger dot diameters without increasing the laser induced damage. This process for a dot-style opening of the passivation layers, for which a patent has been applied, leads to very fast scan speeds that are in excess of 20 m/s. For the processing of PERC cells employing dot pattern designs, laser ablation cycle times are reduced, enabling lower production costs.
The Dual Line c-Si system also eliminates wafer handling and transfer times between laser processing cycles. This on-the-fly processing further improves productivity by providing processing speeds of up to 3,600 wafers-per-hour. Rofin-Baasel has received tool orders for PERC cell processes, both for use in R&D and lab work as well as high-volume production line applications. The Dual Line c-Si platform has demonstrated that in excess of 20% for monocrystalline c-Si cells and greater than 18% for multicrystalline c-Si p-type cells are possible.
According to Hendel: “We are seeing small-scale demand for high efficiency technology, such as PERC, metal-wrap-through (MWT) and n-type, from Asia. However, equipment demand, either in the form of new lines or retrofits, is not really picking up in China even though some 70 – 80% of installed capacity is located there.” Hendel is of the opinion that the reasons for this include tighter credit lines and low profitability of many of the tier one suppliers. While Taiwanese, European and U.S. PV manufacturers have more advanced high efficiency technologies, which tend to demand more use of lasers, Chinese tier one producers have R&D and pilot lines but have yet to implement high efficiency technology in production.

Tackling suppressed demand

Like Teamtechnik, Manz, Schmid Group and numerous other suppliers of production machinery and lines, Rofin-Baasel is able to insure itself against any anticipated low demand in the PV sector by establishing a good, solid diversification strategy and supplying into other markets. In addition to supplying the solar industry, the company supplies lasers for manufacturing processes to the automotive, glass, packaging, semiconductor, light-emitting diode (LED) and jewellery industries. “Even at the peak of the ‘solar gold rush’, PV represented less than10% of our revenue. We are taking a conservative approach and always make sure that we only work with PV customers that have a solid business model,” states Hendel.
For the equipment segment, the worst of the dry-spell – in terms of lack of orders – has probably already passed, though during this year sales are still expected to be nowhere near as robust as they have been in the past. To go from 36 GW in 2013 to 49 GW in 2014 will not require much new capacity, believes Hendel.
This year will continue to see the industry thin out, with manufacturers either exiting the market altogether due to bankruptcy proceedings, or as part of a wider restructuring or focus-switch to other, more profitable markets and opportunities.
Manz, which offers turnkey thin film CIGS PV lines as a key part of its solar business, is identifying opportunities for its laser tools, fuelled in part by demand for high efficiency c-Si cells.
The company’s laser processes are suitable for fully automated laser ablation system for local contact opening of rear side passivation layers, in addition to other applications.
Manz also develops production lines for a range of industries that includes flat panel displays and batteries, and the company has developed laser production systems that incorporate automation, inspection, optics and processing tools. The systems, which attain high throughputs, are suitable for cell line upgrades or can be used with the company’s SE and backend tools. With a plant in Suzhou that has a department dedicated to laser operations, Manz now wants to establish partnerships with Asian PV and other electronics companies that can use the company’s laser equipment and expertise in manufacturing. Such a bold and ambitious approach suggests that the future success of PV equipment suppliers will require them to adopt an increasingly collaborative approach with manufacturers from all across the globe.

Find out more at Intersolar Europe

Advances in production cell equipment are likely to be showcased prominently at this month’s Intersolar Europe exhibition in Munich, June 4-6. Teamtechnik has already confirmed that it will take the opportunity to officially unveil its TT1600 power stringer at the show, while many other companies specializing in the industry will also be in attendance.
Teamtechnik will be exhibiting at booth A3.480. For more information turn to page 96.


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