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Applied exits from thin-film solar panels

Posted: 27 Jul 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar panels  thin-film technology  glass coating 

In a major restructuring effort, Applied Materials Inc. will exit from manufacturing its SunFab turnkey line of thin-film solar panels and divest its low-emissivity architectural glass coating products.

These actions are expected to impact between 400-to-500 positions globally. The company has also cut its earnings forecast for the quarter and will take a charge from Rs.1, 751.18 crore ($375 million)-to-Rs.1,984.67 ($425 million).

The restructuring plan is intended to make its Energy and Environmental Solutions (EES) unit a profitable segment in fiscal year 2011. Upon completion of the restructuring plan, annual operating expenses are expected to decrease by at least Rs.466.98 crore ($100 million) on an annualized basis.

For some time, rumours have been running rampant that Applied would scrap SunFab. Sunfab has been losing money, because the thin-film technology was never really competitive, as compared to traditional solar cells.

To date, Applied has sold ''more than a dozen'' SunFab lines, said Mike Splinter, chairman and CEO of Applied Materials, during a conference call. Most of the SunFab sales were ''single-junction'' lines for a range of customers. Applied was developing a ''tandem-junction'' line as well.

"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," Splinter said.

The company will support existing SunFab customers with services. It will continue to offer individual tools for sale to thin-film solar manufacturers. Applied Materials plans to put an emphasis on opportunities in traditional crystalline silicon (c-Si) solar, where it also sells individual tools.

R&D efforts to improve thin-film panel efficiency and high-productivity deposition will continue. Applied's solar R&D centre in Xi'an, China will concentrate on advancing its c-Si solar and other technologies.

Applied also said it is making a big push in LEDs. As reported, Applied is also developing a tool for light emitting diode (LED) technology. The company is devising an MOCVD tool or hybrid technology for LEDs. Some analysts believe the tool is late to the party, however.

Lately, Applied has not been in a festive mood in solar. Several years ago, Applied made a bet to do ''turnkey'' thin-film solar technologyat a time when polysilicon prices were high. Applied devised SunFaba turnkey line based on amorphous thin-film technology. Applied also sold gear for the non-thin-film markets.

Then, Applied was hit by the perfect storm. First, polysilicon prices fell like a rock in recent times. As a result, traditional solar cell makers could ramp more product at competitive prices, which impacted the thin-film crowd.

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