Applied Materials stops selling ‘SunFab’ thin-film lines: focus on c-Si solar and LED technology

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In a significant change of direction, Applied Materials has revealed that it will stop selling its turnkey a-Si thin-film technology under the SunFab name to potential new customers, shifting emphasis away from thin-film altogether and focusing on crystalline silicon (c-Si) and LED manufacturing equipment and technology. Applied has not been as active in the growing LED market as other equipment suppliers, primarily from the semiconductor industry. Leading semiconductor foundry, TSMC is entering the LED market as it pushes into energy markets, including solar. The restructuring of Applied’s Energy and Environmental Solutions (EES) division was said to cost the company between US$375 million and US$425 million.

“While Applied has delivered significant innovations with our SunFab production line and made substantial progress on our technology roadmap, the thin-film market has been negatively impacted by several factors, including delays in utility-scale solar adoption, solar panel manufacturers’ challenges in obtaining affordable capital, changes and uncertainty in government renewable energy policies, and competitive pressure from crystalline silicon technologies,” said Mike Splinter, chairman and CEO of Applied Materials. “Led by Mark Pinto, EES will focus on our industry-leading crystalline silicon solar business and on pursuing other opportunities in advanced energy technologies like LED lighting.”

As for the equipment that makes up the SunFab line, Applied said that it would be continue to offer individual tools for sale to thin-film solar manufacturers, including CVD and PVD equipment. R&D efforts to improve thin-film efficiency levels and high-productivity deposition would continue for existing customers.

Many of Applied’s SunFab customers have struggled to gain traction in the market due to the competitive strength of thin-film leader and CdTe technology user, First Solar, which has the lowest manufacturing cost-per-watt structure. The dramatic fall in polysilicon prices as significant new capacity comes on stream has also played its part in boosting the competitive position of c-Si technologies and recent resurgence in cell efficiency gains.

The restructuring will impact between 400 to 500 positions globally, Applied said. A number of affected employees may transfer to other groups or functions within the company. Applied said it had more than 12 SunFab customers since lanching the technology in 2007.

Updates from Applied’s conference call to discuss the EES division restructuring.

Mike Splinter noted that there had been a lack of demand going forward for its SunFab technology and was “impractical” to continue operations as they stood. The R&D facilities in Germany will be closed and the only development work will be carried out at Applied’s main R&D facility in Silicon Valley.

Splinter also noted that c-Si R&D would be undertaken at its new facility in China.

Applied executives noted that the majority of its more than 12 customers continued to fabricate single-junction cells, despite Mark Pinto claiming tandem-junction cell efficiencies in the lab and pilot-line had shown better than expected results of 10% efficiencies. He also noted that significant improvements in throughput and lower production costs had also been made. 

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