Solar Power International brought familiar names, faces and memories.
With the solar energy market expected to expand as rapidly in the upcoming decade as SMT did in the 1980s and ’90s, many parallels are being drawn between the two, and some familiar names and faces from electronics manufacturing are now appearing in the solar sector.
Like at Solar Power International 2009, for instance. America’s largest solar energy conference and expo, SPI, was held at the Anaheim convention center in late October. With over 24,000 attendees and 900 exhibitors, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the Nepcon shows during the boom years of SMT.
Recognized leaders in the SMT supply chain exhibiting at SPI included BTU, Flexlink, Datapaq, Christopher Associates, Henkel, Cookson and Hisco. These suppliers have identified applications for their core technologies in the photovoltaic (PV) market. Some have made minimal changes to current products, while others have developed new offerings tailored specifically to the demands of this emerging technology.
BTU (btu.com) has long been recognized as a leader in reflow processing for its high thermal transfer efficiency ovens. But before its first reflow oven was even designed, BTU was already serving the solar market. Atmospheric pressure chemical vapor deposition (APCVD) technology was developed in the 1980s to deposit anti-reflective coatings on glass panels. The process is still used today, and BTU’s lineup has expanded to include newer, more varied equipment that supports both silicon and thin-film PV technologies. With 50 to 60% of BTU’s business now in the solar sector, vice president of sales and marketing Jim Griffin suggests that in order to maintain a successful business position, “product diversity is an absolute necessity, and an organization must keep their presence global.” He credits his organization’s growth in solar to its ability to leverage its worldwide support infrastructure, which includes manufacturing facilities and applications labs in the US and Shanghai.
Flexlink (flexlink.com), known to electronics manufacturers for its configurable conveyor systems, also provides material handling systems to solar assemblers. Photovoltaic panels are both heavy and delicate, so Flexlink combined expertise in moving delicate circuit boards and heavy, palletized industrial assemblies to design low-vibration, scalable solar panel handling systems. According to Michael Hilsey, Flexlink’s director of marketing and indirect sales, moving into this new market was a “natural progression,” which is why it claims the largest share of material handling systems in the solar manufacturing industry.
Datapaq (datapaq.com), providers of thermal data loggers for reflow characterization, now offers similar products designed for solar manufacturing processes. Some of the modifications to the reflow logging gear include protective shells that can protect the loggers at temperatures up to 800°C and withstand vacuum pressures equivalent to 300 lbs. of force. The six-channel systems run sample rates of up to 20 datapoints per second to monitor ramp rates as steep as 100°C per second. Now that’s hot.
Christopher Associates (christopherweb.net), best known to assemblers for bringing the revolutionary Koh Young solder paste inspection systems to America, now offers a full lineup of solar manufacturing equipment and materials. Matt Holtzman, Christopher’s president, says he has applied the lessons learned through his 30 years of international circuit fabrication and assembly experience to the solar manufacturing world. Having witnessed the multiple booms, busts and consolidations in the circuits industry, he predicts similar movement in the solar manufacturing domain, and is prepared for them. His strategy: “to provide the inevitable differentiator in a developing market – service.” Christopher provides a full lineup of both equipment and materials, most of which are imported from Asian countries, which now lead the global value proposition in solar technology.
On the materials side of the market, Henkel (henkel.com/electronics) is identifying numerous crossover applications for its products typically used in electronics manufacturing. Similar to its functions in circuits, conductive adhesives replace solder in applications that will not accept solder (like glass, for example); silver flake filled epoxies work as grounding die attach materials; low-residue rosin-free fluxes are used in automated soldering equipment; thermal management materials are used to sink heat, and conformal coatings protect assemblies against harsh environments.
Cookson (alphametals.com/products/photovoltaic) is capitalizing on its expertise in soldering materials to gear new products to the process demands of solar cell assembly. Designed specifically for tabbing and stringing operations, ultra-low solids liquid fluxes have been designed to minimize maintenance and activate very quickly, because soldering cycle times are incredibly fast – often less than two seconds. Addressing the process concern of flux overspray and its associated maintenance costs, Cookson has developed a dry flux that is applied directly to the solder ribbon. Dubbed “Ready Ribbon,” the solder-covered copper ribbon is pre-coated with a dry flux, which eliminates the need for spraying, and therefore, cleaning. Steve Cooper, Cookson director of global business development, said, “Since its introduction earlier this year, we’ve seen a significant interest, particularly from module manufacturers.”
Hisco (hiscoinc.com/solar), known for its extensive distribution network in North America, is positioned to support all facets of PV assembly from module manufacturing through installation. Its end-to-end approach is based on distribution experience in the electronics market, and it couples extensive product offerings with service. Boasting over 100 certified professionals on staff, Tim Gearhart, manager of Hisco’s Silicon Valley branch, says, “Having experts who can help solar manufacturers optimize their processes is one of our greatest strengths.” Hisco’s website illustrates the broad range of photovoltaic technologies and the numerous areas supported by his organization.
It’s no surprise to see leaders in SMT assembly taking leadership positions in PV assembly, and it will be no surprise to see many followers tagging along as the industry prepares for explosive growth. What will separate the leaders from followers in the brave new world of solar manufacturing? The same characteristic that has differentiated them for years in the SMT world: customer focus.