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Semicon West/Intersolar North America redux: Sifting through the noise for the signals—hello AMAT?

21 July 2008 | By Tom Cheyney | Chip Shots

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As last week's Semicon West/Intersolar North America colocated extravaganza wore on, several people asked me why I wasn't blogging every day--or several times daily--during the events. Although there were moments when I did experience blogger's withdrawal, I came to San Francisco with the intent of information-gathering (the data dump) and network-building (the shmooze), not chasing story after story down and trying to match my peers in a meaningless race to see who could file more copy or shoot more video interviews.

Bully for them, such efforts have their place, but remember that adage about missing the forest for the trees?

Frankly, the public relations/marketing/news reporting noise level at these megashows is deafening, with many journalists ending up reporting on the same few dozen companies or stories (often the ones that the more wily PR agencies and corporate communications departments do their darnedest to get us to cover). And how many people are actually reading the info avalanche that cascades over the Internet wires, especially if they're working the exhibit halls and conferences themselves (or maybe even holding down the fort back at the office or the plant)?

While it's a great feeling to break a story and beat your media colleagues to the punch, I believe one of the central objectives of a blog column like Chip Shots is to sift through all that noise to find a few meaningful signals. Plus, by avoiding the immediate gratification of insta-reporting or insta-blogging, I can see what my colleagues may have missed or overlooked (perhaps even break a story), take a deep breath (or a chill-pill), and offer my considered musings.

As others have noted, the Intersolar portion of the show(s) had the strongest buzz and densest crush; even in the other, less-trafficked halls, hundreds of Semicon exhibitors proudly showed off their supposed expertise in solar manufacturing. Applied Materials' solar booth featured a big-ass piece of Signet Solar thin-film PV module glass as well as an endlessly repeating video about how one can install such frameless BAPV panels in about two minutes and do so much less expensively than with conventional module setups. In true AMAT fashion, the large booth blocked the aisle, forcing me to do an "end-around" to get to one of the companies I met with whose own stand lay on the other side of the divide.

Apart from the glamor and sizzle of Applied's booth and outsized "nanomanufacturing" marketing campaign (was I the only one noting that the company's "CREATE CHANGE" messaging bore a resemblance to Barack Obama's campaign materials?), there were some troubling signals that all may not be right in the giant equipment supplier's world. Take its silicon systems group (please!): it's really hurting, with business off as much as 50% during the current semi tool slump, according to some sources.

AMAT's solar efforts may be going gangbusters and have billions of dollars in bookings, but several people told me that the company has been experiencing serious manufacturing setbacks during the installation and qualification of its turnkey lines at Moser Baer's 200-MW TFPV module plant in India. Problematic yields and disappointing low-single-digit conversion efficiencies have evidently forced Applied to send in scores of additional personnel to deal with the crisis.

Even the most optimistic, bullish-on-AMAT observer should understand that there would be growing pains with the first series of turnkey PV line installations. Call it "early adopter syndrome." But sources say the situation at Moser may be a bit more convulsively serious than the mere expected hiccups, although the word from Signet's Dresden factory seems to be more positive.

All those years of semiconductor and flat-panel-display manufacturing experience serve the company well, but a solar line is not a CMOS or LCD line (and in AMAT's case, it's a new kind of solar line), with its own particular, and sometimes prickly, challenges. Another issue that Applied is dealing with, according to sources? Lead times for production and delivery of its turnkey equipment may be pushing out.

The other potentially disturbing news comes from the technical arena and has to do with the ultimate reliability and lifetime of those thin-film silicon-on-glass modules that the AMAT-equipped lines have begun to churn out. There's concern in some quarters that by twisting certain process "knobs" to boost efficiencies toward the end of the manufacturing line, the result could be that units might suffer from worse-than-expected working conversion efficiencies once installed in the field, that their ability to convert photons into electricity-bearing electrons might become more degraded than previously thought--even to the point of system failure.

This issue of "stabilized and degraded conversion efficiencies" (caused by light-induced defects or other mechanisms), with regards to the AMAT SunFabbed TFPV modules and in general, will be addressed in future blogs, once I have a chance to speak with some experts--including Applied's own coterie.

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