Applied Materials is a leading semiconductor and display equipment company with its headquarters in Santa Clara, USA. The company supplies equipment, services and software solutions for semiconductors, flat panel displays and coatings for flexible electronics. It has a presence in 17 countries with total revenues of $10.8 billion.
In 2008, sensing the market shift towards solar, Applied Materials acquired Italy-based Baccini, a company specialising in designing tools used in the manufacturing of solar cells. Following this, in 2009, the company built the world’s largest commercial solar energy research and development facility in China. Since then, Applied Materials has been leveraging its global footprint to acquire a greater share of the global solar energy market.
As the solar market is moving towards maturity, there is a requirement for advanced solar cells with greater efficiency, which involves complex processes such as photonic doping, passivation and metallisation. These processes help provide solar cells with features such as passivated rear emitter, localised doping for contacts or selective emitters and fully back contacted cells, which are highly important for advanced cell manufacturing and help meet the cost per watt targets.
Applied Materials provides products and solutions that simplify the transition to higher efficiency and advanced cell architectures. It also offers four unique solar technologies – wafering and inspection, cell manufacturing, ion implantation and screen printing – which help improve cell efficiency and achieve cost targets.
Wafering and inspection are crucial for meeting the solar industry’s cost objectives. The inspection of modules automatically evaluates each wafer to find and eliminate the defective ones from the production process. This results in significant manufacturing savings and contains wastage. The wafer is checked for thickness variations, warp and resistivity, and defects including saw marks, chipped edges, damaged chamfers, stains, pinholes and micro-cracks that might otherwise add to the cost. In addition, the company manufactures equipment for cell production. It provides high efficiency cell manufacturing equipment, which uses advanced cell structures. The products include Applied Baccini Esatto Technology, Applied Baccini Soft Line, Applied PECVD 5.7 and Applied Tempo Metallisation System that provide capacity to the modules to reduce risks, costs and time-to-market.
Applied Materials also provides ion implantation processes, a technique borrowed from the semiconductor industry, which allows solar cell manufacturers to simplify the process flow and manufacture of high efficiency cells at lower cost per watt. Ion implanted junctions thus exhibit superior emitter junction quality and uniformity for higher yield compared to diffusion.
Screen printing is another technology solution offered by the company. This is a manufacturing method of choice for fabricating solar cell contact structures and has proven to be a highly productive, cost-effective and extendable method. Applied’s Baccini screen printing facility has the ability to process large volumes of thin wafers at a high yield.
In addition, the company provides associated services for the solar energy industry such as crystalline silicon (c-Si) performance services, managed services, flexible managed services, transactional and c-Si preventive maintenance services, which can be customised as per the customer needs. The service options extend from basic remote technical support to full service solutions that include committed performance measurements.
Presence in India
According to Giorgio Cellere, head of project management, Baccini Cell Systems, the Indian solar industry is growing exponentially, which has led to greater demand in the market. Given that India is a growing economy with an ambitious renewable energy target of 175 GW by 2022, Applied Materials has been consciously expanding its presence here. Although China is the biggest market for the company, India does figure in its top five markets. However, the company has been facing tough competition from its Chinese competitors in India. It has been quite challenging to provide facilities at a cost as low as its Chinese counterparts. Another major challenge in India is policy and regulatory uncertainty. This has made it challenging for the company to take decisions regarding long-term manufacturing and investments in India.
The company is quite positive about the aggressive solar growth in India, though Cellere cautions it is incumbent on policy and regulatory certainty. Increased stability in government policy would enable the company to increase its presence in India.