Building Blocks to Boost Solar Productivity (Part 3)

This is the last post in a series running this week looking at the interrelated building blocks that are key contributors to producing solar modules at a cost of less than US$1 per watt.

Advances in Automation

Many solar factories today operate with little or no tool or factory automation. Those which have automation on individual tools often use custom hardware and software which are expensive to create, acquire and install, and are labor-intensive to maintain. The solar industry is increasingly turning to well-known productivity methods from other high-volume manufacturing industries, including intelligent, affordable factory and process control software.

For example, Applied Materials adapted its E3 equipment engineering system used in IC manufacturing to provide solar manufacturers with information on tool uptime, yields and process control. The trends of the past decade in which cost decreases were achieved in large part by ramping volume production in regions with low labor costs will shift towards increasing use of automation and a range of sophisticated productivity tools including data mining, advanced process control, flexible scheduling and dispatching. This focus on maximizing throughput and yield will in turn extend the trends toward using out-sourced global services providers to most effectively tap into leading-edge methodologies and lowest-cost suppliers.

A High Growth Market

As crystalline silicon solar factories grow in size and sophistication, equipment and process will continue to produce higher efficiency solar cells based on thinner wafers processed on faster production lines operated in yield-critical environments. The future will be typified by advanced cell processing – e.g. low-loss passivation, high-rate production of thin wafers – e.g. crimped and diamond wires, and sophisticated fab management – e.g. integrated characterization, monitoring and fab control systems. The productivity and quality gains possible with these continuing advances will drive continuing cost decreases as the solar industry expands to meet society’s need for clean, low-cost energy.

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