Builders of solar panels (and semiconductors andhard disk drives, for that matter) need to focus on technologyprocesses, assembling, testing and shipping their product. The minutiae of the equipment that makes these products materialize is important but not the core focus of these firms.
If you tour the factory floor of a modern solar plant — there is a paucity of people and a lot ofautomated equipment. Ever wonder where that equipment comes from andhow it gets made? Standard machinery for commodity-level photovoltaicscomes from Applied Materials, Oerlikon or others. But what about custom equipment that one might see within the new breed of photovoltaic firms like First Solar, Solyndra, MiaSole, NanoSolar or Solaria? There is no standard tool set for CIGS or CdTe or CPV. Where do manufacturingtools for those firms come from? They can’t be bought off the shelf.
Companies are faced with the choice of attempting to build everything themselves, reinventing the wheel, and risking a loss of focus on their coreproduct. Or they can outsource this part of their business to anexpert. In the case of custom solar manufacturing equipment — one ofthose experts is Fremont, California’s Owens Design. I met with John Apgar, President and Mark Danna, Senior Director ofBusiness Development on Wednesday of this week.
Owens is a a 26year old, 50-employee Silicon Valley firm with a deep history insemiconductor and hard disk drive media manufacturing equipment. Overthe last few years Owens’ business has shifted so that it is now 70percent solar related — certainly an indicator of the ascension of thesolar industry and a testament to the difficulties in semiconductors.
Their business model allowed them to adapt to to the solar industry. Owensis a systems developer that partners with their customer to provideturn-key systems incorporating robotics, software, machine vision –whatever the customer spec call for. This means the customer does nothave to worry too much about grippers, motors, vacuums, chucks, wireharnesses, pneumatics and all that assorted hardware.
Some ofthe solar projects that Owens has shipped include:
- Fabricating odd solar form factors
- CPV assembly lines
- CIGS on flexible substrate assembly equipment
- CIGS process automation
- c-Si cell handling automation equipment
- Cell testers for binning unique form-factor photovoltaics
- a-Si encapsulization
Here’s a video of an Owens Design flashtest system.
Their customer list includes Applied Materials, KLA Tencor, Intel,Seagate, GT Solar, Solaria and many more. Owens is tight-lipped aboutthe names of some of their current solar customers. But it’s a fairbet that they are working with many of the major VC-funded CIGS players and body language during the enhanced interrogation part of theinterview indicates they might be working with First Solar.
The firm needs to be very careful on the way they handle IP tomaintain the trust of their customers. The customer maintains ownership to the design rights of the equipment as well as the documentation. Their competition includes ATS and lots of small companies in afragemented market.
The firm has manufactured and installed more than 1,000 systems andships between 10 and 15 new tool designs a year, a swift pace in thisindustry. Owens is a behind-the-scenes company that is enabling thesolar industry to achieve the same level of automation that drove thesemiconductor industry to high volumes and lower cost.