With the explosive growth in crystalline silicon production capacity over the last few years, the wafering equipment market exceeded US$1 billion in sales in 2008, according to data from VLSI Research. This had attracted major equipment suppliers such as Applied Materials, Komatsu and now Kuka, via its Kuka Systems Division to acquire established players in this expanding market.
Recently, Kuka Systems acquired the ‘Slicing Technology’ of Czech-based mechanical engineering company Themis a.s. for an undisclosed sum. Key technology purchased included IP, experienced workforce as well as process equipment for sawing and shaping ingots and wafers.
“The consistent extension of the value-added chain in the photovoltaics production field and the extension of our product portfolio for the renewable energies sector mark a further important step on our route towards the diversification of our range of products and services” commented Albert Vontz, Product Group Manager Solar Technology at Kuka Systems.
Kuka, like its new rivals is planning to leverage its expertise in robotics and manufacturing automation to further develop the equipment portfolio to compete in the market.
The acquisition of the Themis sawing technology also means that Kuka is now able to supply customers with almost the full range of equipment from start to finish that is required for the automated production of crystalline PV modules.
In June, 2007 Applied Materials purchased major Swiss-based wafering equipment supplier, HCT for approximately US$475 million. Just over a year later, Applied had expanded HCT’s production capacity and debottlenecked the assembly operations in an effort to reduce equipment lead-times and better compete with major rival, Meyer Berger, which had already been investing heavily in capacity expansions and shortening lead times as it gained market share.
Applied also introduced its ‘MaxEdge’ wire saw system which it claimed was the first in the industry to employ a dual-wire management system that doubled throughput and load capacity compared to competitive systems.
In early 2008, Japan-based Komatsu solidified its 30% stake in wafer sawing specialist Nippei Toyama, purchasing the company outright for approximately US$400 million.
Since then, Meyer Burger responded at the beginning of August, 2009 with the acquisition of Diamond Wire Technology, based in Colorado, USA for an undisclosed sum. Meyer Burger said at the time that incorporating Diamond Wire’s technology would make a significant impact on reducing the total costs of ownership in wafering.
With large-scale suppliers now controlling a major share of the wafering market, competition and technological advances could reach new heights as the PV industry returns to growth over the next few years.