Will Electronics Follow the Sun? Print E-mail
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Written by Irene Sterian   
Monday, 30 June 2008 19:00

Vast investment in solar technology has echoes of another mass transition: SMT.


Deriving power from the sun is hardly a new concept. In fact, Thomas Edison once remarked, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy … what a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ’til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Edison’s words certainly ring true today. Energy users, whether residential, commercial, or industrial, want a low-cost and environmentally acceptable alternative to traditional energy sources such as oil, coal, gas and nuclear, which may no longer meet those needs.

To put the power and potential of solar energy into perspective, consider for a moment that after passing through the atmosphere, 174 PW (1015) of solar energy hits the Earth’s land and water. This is equivalent to ten thousand times the world’s current annual energy usage (15 TW [1012] in 2005). In other words, there is potential for all global energy to be harnessed from the sun’s rays.

Although the world’s focus is shifting to alternate energies such as solar, geothermal, hydro, wind and biomass as environmentally acceptable alternatives, these technologies still need cost reductions to make them more accessible. Fortunately, government investment and technology improvements are driving down the price of solar energy, positioning it as an increasingly viable energy solution for the future.

To draw a comparison we can all relate to – the electronics industry has invested an estimated $32 billion in the past 10 years on lead-free conversion, whereas the solar industry invested $16 billion in 2007 alone.

This continued investment should eventually drive down the cost of solar energy, positioning it as a viable solution. Supporting this push, as the cost of oil spikes ($134 per barrel in June), alternatives such as solar energy are getting closer to parity (roughly the equivalent of $200 per barrel). Recognizing this, many companies are positioning to take advantage of solar energy – both for use within their own organizations and as a potential growth market.

Figure 1 shows the conventional photovoltaic process flow. Many companies provide products in each of these areas, or in several areas in this process flow.


A conventional photovoltaic cell looks like Figure 2. This cell is built up using thick-film production techniques, in which an array of fine current-collector fingers are deposited on the top side of the substrate, an aluminum metallization layer applied to the bottom side, and then a series of wider bus bars created for electrical interconnection purposes. Screening and stencils are used for making these 100 µm thin bus bars.


Currently, a great deal of activity is occurring at each stage of the photovoltaic process flow, with an overall aim to improve current technologies and reduce costs.

At the silicon stage, much of this work focuses on developing “solar-grade” silicon that is cheaper to produce. The current process is based on semiconductor silicon manufacturing processes.

At the wafer stage, development activity surrounds automating the manufacturing process and handling wafers in a more cost-effective manner.

At the cell stage, opportunities are available for development and cost-reductions around the two major types of photovoltaic cell technologies in use:

  • Single/multi-crystalline/silicon: This technology has 78% of the market share, with major players and established assembly capability.

  • Non-standard crystalline: 11% market share, with at least four variations on the technology.

A rival to the conventional photovoltaic technology, thin-film has emerged in the past decade as a viable alternative to the traditional silicon wafer cell approach. Thin-film has 11% share, with at least three variations on the technology. This technology boasts the most activity, patents and cost-reduction opportunities.

For new market entrants, thin-film provides the best opportunity for investment and development, as market share is growing, and the three unique technology variations provide opportunities for innovation – in contrast to entering a more mature market, such as polysilicon. However, all manufacturing technologies are evolving, and the cost of the incumbent polysilicon technology is becoming more affordable.

Opportunity exists for the electronics industry to align with thin-film technology manufacturing and push cost reduction through materials and cycle-time reductions. At the module level, the focus is on turnkey equipment development and streamlining solar modules handling. Inherent to this stage of the photovoltaic process is something familiar to the electronics world: soldering. Tabbing and stringing is used to join panels using wire and flux. This means there may be an opportunity for electronics manufacturers because the principles of high-volume automation, design for manufacturing, Lean and Six Sigma, and design for reliability can be applied (Figure 3).


The cost of entry is not cheap, however. A typical turnkey cell assembly line today can cost $10 million to $80 million and take 12 to 18 months to become fully operational. A typical turnkey module assembly line can cost $500,000 to $5 million and take six to nine months to become fully operational. Therefore, similar to SMT lab/prototype lines, which can cost $100,000 and provide a proof point for a larger investment (i.e., a $3 million automated SMT line), solar module lines may be a good entry point.

Is it the right time to invest? I recently came across a quote from Ray Kurzweil, a technologist and inventor, who said, “The solar power industry will have exponential growth, along the same lines as another silicon-based sector: semiconductors.”

Interestingly, there are a number of similarities between the electronics and solar industries; for instance, military and defense requirements originally drove both.

Electronics were driven by military/defense in the 1950s, by personal computers in the 1980s, and today, by consumer products such as cellphones and gaming equipment. Those who invested in surface mount technology in the early 1980s were able to benefit from the increase in demand driven by the rampant growth of the Internet, telecommunications and computing products.

Similarly, the solar industry was driven by defense, followed by remote power. Today, it is driven by on-grid power and consumer demand (solar panels, solar farms, environmentally sound solutions). To that end, those investing in solar today may benefit from the growth of this industry during the next 20 years.

There are opportunities for everyone in the industry to benefit from the shift to environmentally friendly thinking and the resulting demand for alternate energy. Electronics manufacturers, OEMs and suppliers are investing in research and development and looking at business opportunities. If you are interested in what’s next for the electronics industry, this may be it.


  1. Applied Materials, appliedmaterials.com.
  2. DEK, deksolar.com.
  3. Fraunhaufer Institute, ise.fhg.de.
  4. International Photovoltaic Conference, photovoltaic-conference.com.
  5. Intersolar North America, intersolar.us.
  6. Prismark Partners, prismark.com.
  7. SMTA, smta.org.
  8. Solar America Initiative, www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/solar_america.
  9. Solarbuzz, solarbuzz.com/technologies.htm.

Irene Sterian is manager, advanced process development, at Celestica (celestica.com); This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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What can the industry bring to the table to help the solar industry achieve its objectives? Maybe that discovery process will happen at SMTA International this year. The August event will feature a session on alternate energy at which DEK, BTU, Indium, Asymtek and PhotoStencil will discuss their involvement. Also, Prismark Partners, an independent consulting group, will present “Photovoltaics: The Next Great Electronics Market,” the firm’s survey of opportunities throughout the photovoltaic supply chain. For information: smta.org/smtai.



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