This article is part of an ongoing series by ABT Automated Bonding Technology. Each educational article focuses on a different aspect of Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) and its applications. This article takes a closer look at reducing a key cost and bottleneck of manufacturing thin cell solar panels. Throughout the article, we will mention how we can save costs for manufacturers.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (there’s solar lighting for that!), you would have noticed the proliferation of solar-power. In an ever-increasing world of connected devices (your refrigerator can now order milk for you), the demand for power continues to skyrocket. Because our society is more global and more mobile than ever before, there is an unmet demand for power on demand. Solar power has risen to the forefront of meeting this demand because it offers a few critical advantages: it’s flexible, it’s portable and it’s cost-effective.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), “solar energy in the United States is booming.” The Photovoltaic (PV) market grew 97% from 2015 to 2016, and it only shows signs of strong continued growth in all subcategories. “After rapidly completing a record build out in 2016 and 2017, developers will be looking to procure new projects with completion targets moving into the next decade.” Governments, non-profits, and businesses are all pouring money into this new green technology, ensuring solar will remain entrenched.
Because of the rapid demand growth, focus has been on capturing that top-line revenue. What’s been an afterthought in many cases is the costs associated with meeting that demand. The SEIA posits that “the biggest cost-decline opportunity in the solar industry exists in soft costs, including labor, supply chain and overhead considerations.” Time for a quick shameless plug: this is exactly where our company fits into the global growth equation. Our technology directly supports these three cost-decline opportunities, and there may also be government financial support for customers and end-users to help roll this out. The SEIA says that “the U.S. Department of Energy is leading the charge on reducing soft costs, and SEIA and The Solar Foundation are working with cities and counties to streamline permitting processes and reduce local barriers to going solar.”
So, what do we do? Our key technology robotically automates a highly wasteful and labor-intensive process in the PVD sputtering target to backing tube bonding industry, which is a consumable in the manufacturing process of thin cell solar panels. There is currently a twelve to sixteen week lead time for manufacturers to receive these bonded assemblies. A target assembly, as the bonded product is known, is similar to paper towels that are glued to a cardboard tube before a consumer uses them. In the case of the target assembly, the target material is the paper towels and the backing tube is the cardboard paper towel tube. We use, as does the industry, liquid indium, a precious metal, as our “glue” to bond the target material to the backing tube.
To produce these cylindrical target assemblies, ceramic targets are traditionally bonded to backing tubes with a manual process that is extremely hot, expensive and dangerous. A worker manually moves the backing tube and target material, which is heavy. They then must wait for both pieces to heat up. Once heated, the worker takes liquid indium (an expensive precious metal) and pours (by hand in a heat suit!) the indium into a 1 millimeter gap between the backing tube and the target material. Indium, which is a precious metal, inevitably spills and is wasted because it is nearly impossible for a man in a heat suit to pour this material into a 1mm gap. For the indium that does get poured, it is pour unevenly. The worker pours some, then must rotate the assembly in order to pour more. This creates bubbles and air gaps along the surface of the backing tube, which creates massive downstream problems as the target assembly is being used for thin cell solar panel production.
To sum up the manual process that our customers currently use, the following steps need to be completed:
1. Worker loads a new backing tube
2. Worker loads new target material “sleeves”
3. Worker waits while the backing tube and target material is heated up
4. Worker pours (and spills/wastes) liquid indium into the 1mm gap
5. Worker puts down the liquid indium
6. Worker manually rotates the target assembly
7. Worker must pick the liquid indium back up
8. Worker pours (and spills/wastes) liquid indium into the 1mm gap
9. Repeat steps 5-8 as needed until the target assembly gap is full
10. Worker waits while the target assembly cools down as it can’t be moved while heated
In short, this is a very dangerous, time-consuming, and wasteful process. The materials are heavy and need to be carried with thick gloves while wearing a heat suit. This creates health and safety liabilities while increasing insurance and OSHA costs. The worker also spends quite a bit of time waiting around for the materials to either heat up or cool down. The net output of this expensive, manual process is only two bonded target assemblies per worker per 8-hour shift.
Our technology replaces the need for multiple workers (in heat suits), to manually bond the target to the backing tube, and our process is much more efficient and safer for the (singular!) operator that is needed to monitor the process. By automating the process, our enclosed conveyors preheat the materials prior to the indium bond. Robotic grippers and laser sensors load the materials without exposure risk to employees. Our fill process is “all at once”, and the target assembly spins while being filled, eliminating the air gaps and bubbles in the indium bond through centrifugal and centripetal force. Robotic grippers and laser sensors offload the target assembly which is cooled down on an enclosed conveyor. We also have the option of a nitrogen (N2) purge, which creates a vacuum and removes atmosphere from the cool down enclosure, which further increases the purity of the materials over the manual process. Our automated system has an output of sixty-four bonded target assemblies per 8-hour shift, and one employee can operate multiple systems simultaneously.
In addition to the exponential increase in output (read “revenue for customers”), their labor costs and risks are dramatically lower. The machines have small factory floor footprints, which helps customers further reduce their costs because clean room square footage is very expensive. (Note that our machines can operate both within- and without- a clean room environment. A clean room environment is not a requirement for customers to benefit from the technology.) Because the revenue is increased and costs are reduced, profit margins increase for our customers. We create win-win scenarios with all who are part of our customer or supplier base.
Once bonded, these cylindrical target assemblies are used as consumables in the physical vapor deposition (PVD) process of manufacturing solar panels, touch-screens, camera lenses, OLED and LED thin film technology sectors.
The below illustration (courtesy of Plansee) shows how particles from the target material are ionized and deposited as a physical vapor onto the surface material. To follow on to our paper towel analogy of the target assembly, this is how the “paper towels” get used in the PVD process to manufacture solar panels, flat screen displays, etc.
PVD is used to coat materials with layers of precious metals. See below for the many layers of coatings that are required to create solar panels.
Cost reduction is one of the biggest opportunities in the high-growth solar industry, one of the largest industry applications for PVD. More information about the technical aspects of the cylindrical target assemblies can be provided upon request.
Leveraging another growth opportunity that has seen recent acceleration, our automation is achieved through highly calibrated robotics. Robot use has risen exponentially since the 1960’s. when they were primarily used for painting, welding and assembly applications. Advancements in AI, electronics, computing technology, and components, such as end-effectors and sensors, have brought robots to the forefront.
In short, the market is growing very rapidly and there is an increased focus on cost reduction. The overall volume growth only ensures a bigger market with larger opportunities as time passes. Also, as this is a relatively new industry, cost efficiencies haven’t yet been established and there is much waste in the process. Our patent-pending technology enables solar manufacturers to produce more volume at lower cost.
Additionally, it is a particularly opportune time because the United States of America passed a solar tariff in 2018. This solar tariff places duties of as much as 30% on some imported solar equipment. We believe that this will cause American solar companies to look to either manufacture domestically or find other ways to reduce their costs. Either way, companies can work with us to reduce their manufacturing costs.
More about ABT Automated Bonding Technology (formerly SES Solar Equipment Systems, LLC.) , a green energy company, has created a new automated robotic system/machine that take a stainless steel cylindrical backing tube and bonds a precious metal sleeve utilizing indium as the bonding agent. This MTB-1000 target-to-backing tube bonding system is taking the bonding industry’s manufacturing capabilities to a whole new level. Including the New Tabletop MTB 500 Series, No longer are we going to be restricted by the long lead times to obtain bonded assemblies the MTB-1000 can do 64 in a shift as compared to 2 currently being processed by two humans with lead times up to 10 weeks!
What makes the design so universal is that it can bond any size of backing tube to any target sleeve material that is bonded using Indium as the adhesive. The system maintains strict process control of particles (by removing the human contact) through our state-of-the-art proprietary software which gains us over 99.9% surface coverage.
This improves product yield and uniformity. The system throughput is unmatched in the industry which, for our customers, translates in to a very fast ROI.
The goal of ABT Automated Bonding Technology is to revolutionize the bonding industry and to partner with our customers in joint development of next-generation technologies. A key selling point is our flexibility to bond any size of backing tube with minimal to no down time for a process change. We are also one of the first companies in the industry to introduce the Internet of Things (“IOT”) communications on our systems. This allows us to troubleshoot a system through a Remote Terminal Unit (RTU) from anywhere in the world. We can pin point a component failure from our offices and have the part shipped and ready prior to failure.