Applied Materials withdraws from solar ion implant and wafer sawing sectors

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Leading semiconductor equipment supplier Applied Materials (AMAT) has confirmed to PV Tech that it is to close its Precision Wafering Systems (PWS) wire saw business, headquartered in Switzerland and stop development on its ‘Solion’ ion implant product. 

In its earnings call last week, Robert J. Halliday, AMAT’s CFO said: “We are also reducing our operating expenses. Our non-GAAP OpEx was US$576 million in [FY]Q3. In [FY]Q4 we plan to reduce it to US$555 million plus or minus US$10 million. We took further actions in solar, where we discontinued our wafer saw and solar implant product lines, resulting in one-time charges of approximately US$51 million in the third quarter.”

In a statement to PV Tech clarifying the exit from both solar business units, Applied noted that it would continue support for existing Solion ion implanter customers.

“As stated during recent earnings calls by our executives, Applied Materials will continually review its portfolio to focus on businesses that give us the best opportunity for growth. In alignment with this strategy, we have decided to close the Precision Wafering Systems (PWS) wire saw business and the office in Cheseaux, Switzerland. For solar implant, we have stopped development activities on our Solion product and shifted some internal resources to other opportunities. We will continue to support all of our Solion implant commitments and obligations to current customers.”

The PWS business was formed from its acquisition of HCT Shaping Systems for US$475 million in June, 2007, while the Solion ion implant business came from the acquisition of Varian Semiconductor, which had around 80% of the semiconductor market for ion implantation tools and had launched its first ion implant tool for solar cell applications. Applied announced its acquisition of Varian in May 2011 at a cost of US$4.9 billion. 

Ion implant technology demise

Recently, PV manufacturing equipment specialist Amtech Systems said it would be selling the majority of its stake in ion implant equipment subsidiary, Kingstone Technology to China-based venture capital firm, Suzhou Zhuo Jing Investment Center for around US$13.6 million.

Varian had been the pioneer in developing an ion implanter for the PV industry and had claimed before its acquisition by Applied in 2011 that it was engaged with 25 of the top 30 crystalline silicon PV manufacturers. 

The then CEO of Varian, Gary Dickerson now the president and CEO of Applied Materials had touted in its last earnings call ahead of the Applied acquisition that he expected Solion sales would reach around US$100 million in the near term. 

In February, 2015 PV Tech talked to Jim Mullin, VP, GM Solar Products at Applied Materials and a former Varian employee where he went on to highlight bifacial solar cells were a key target market for the technology. 

Mullin also expected Applied’s second-gen Solion XP to gain sales momentum as around 500MW of new capacity using the technology would be coming on stream by mid-2015.

Companies known to have adopted Applied’s ion implanters include Suniva, Mission Solar and Neo Solar Power. However, several Korean firms were also mentioned by Mullin as customers, without being specific. 

PV Tech revealed last year that Yingli Green was planning to adopt ion implant technology, believed to be in collaboration with Amtech instead of Applied.

Finlay Colville, head of Solar Intelligence at PV Tech’s publisher Solar Media, said: “As Varian’s solar implant business was transferred to AMAT, after the Varian-AMAT deal, the solar industry also entered its capex downturn phase, making the prospect of ion implanter tool changes even more unlikely. The final piece of the jigsaw that may have driven AMAT’s decision to officially mothball solar implanting may well have been due to the resilience of p-type multi c-Si cell types. Any possible advantage of implanters was largely based on everything working well for either n-type or p-type mono cells.”

The indication in Applied withdrawing from future development of the Solion tool is that broad based adoption of the technology for high-efficiency solar cells from major tier-1 manufacturers were limited in the near future, despite a new technology buy cycle underway. 

Indeed, advanced PERC cell technology has proved to be the de facto next cell technology of choice for the majority of the industry, enabling the majority of existing equipment to be used, notably PECVD and diffusion furnaces to meet cell efficiency gains. 

However, Colville added: “But, it would be foolish to rule out implanters from making a big play in solar manufacturing forever. At some point, whether p-type or n-type, mono or multi, there may well become a point where the transition does make sense. The advantage of using implanters with masks to create selective emitter patterns, within a single tool, would certainly eliminate the multi process stage and tool types that have largely prevented widespread selective emitter deployment until now.”

Wafering woes

With respect to the PWS business, Applied’s main long-term competitor has been Meyer Burger. 

Almost nothing has been said publically about its wafering unit in several years, not surprisingly as the solar wafer market has suffered from chronic overcapacity for four years and little new capacity has come on stream in that time. 

The biggest expansion was by GCL-Poly two years ago when it added 1GW of capacity. Selective capacity additions have been the norm since then.

EES division sales decline

Applied has been reducing its operating expenses in its EES division, which included its wafering and screen printing businesses but not the ion implant business for multiple years to stem losses, since exiting the a-Si thin-film turnkey production line business. 

Sales within the EES division improved last year when Applied reported sales of US$103 million in its FY third quarter, but sales in its recently reported 2015 third quarter slumped to only US$39 million, compared to US$73 million in the previous quarter. The EES division also include web coating tools for the packaging industry, unrelated to solar or semiconductor sectors.

Applied currently remains in the solar industry with its market leading screen printer business, formerly Baccini, based in Italy. Baccini was acquired soon after HCT 2007 for US$330 million. 

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