‘More than just hardware’

Wouter van Strien of ECN (l.) builds bridges between science and mass production, while Rob Pentinga of Tempress (r.) distinguishes himself from his competitors. (Photo: Willy Slingerland)

ECN and Tempress, the Dutch manufacturer of production equipment for solar cells, have been joining forces for seven years already. The collaboration resulted in large orders in China for Tempress and solidified its market position. Now that the economic tide is against us, R&D has become even more important for delivering high efficiency solar cells. Rob Pentinga, business developer at Tempress and Wouter van Strien, business developer at ECN, explains the how and the why.

What role does ECN play in the business strategy of Tempress?

RP: ‘In recent years, ECN started to play an increasingly important role in the business model of Tempress. To make a difference in this highly active market, we need to offer our clients more than pure hardware with a user manual. As a supplier of technology as well as the accompanying production equipment, we can play a crucial role and thus stand out from the competition. The collaboration with ECN is indispensable in this endeavour.’

And why is Tempress so important for ECN?

WvS: ‘ECN is eager to collaborate with businesses to bridge the gap between science and mass production. We want to help Dutch businesses seize opportunities on the international market by making use of each other’s contacts and openings. Tempress is an example of how the joining of forces has brought success to both parties.'

What are concrete results of the collaboration with Tempress?

RP: ‘A milestone was the Panda project with the Chinese company Yingli, one of the largest manufacturers of solar panels. This led to large orders for diffusion furnaces from Tempress. This contributed to the very strong position Tempress has been able to build up in the PV sector.’
WvS: ‘In the Panda project, we jointly developed a new concept for the manufacturing of solar cells. These modules have a higher efficiency and a better performance at low illumination angels or under extreme weather conditions such as in the desert. ECN supplies the licenses for the manufacturing process, while Tempress delivers the machines.’

The market for solar panels is unfavourable at the moment. How does this affect R&D?

RP: ‘The current market situation has put our clients’ margins under high pressure. The only way to stretch these margins is to increase the efficiency of the modules at a lower cost. R&D is a very important means to realise this. That is why Tempress is investing much more in R&D during this downturn, to be able to supply our customers today, but also in the future when there is an upturn, with new equipment and technologies. Producers who have put effort in innovation in an early stage, similar to ECN and Tempress, are currently relatively well-positioned. They will now need to curb the risks and select only those technologies that are able to prove their worth. That is why Tempress feels that a serious pilot line for the production of solar cells at ECN would be a highly welcome addition.'

What do you hope to realise together in the future?

WvS: ‘ECN is collaborating with partners all over the world, but our collaboration with Tempress is more than pleasant. We are able to meet more frequently and we have the same mind-set. This enables us to exchange ideas quite easily and to develop new things together rapidly.’
RP: 'As a spin-off to the collaboration with Yingli, we now plan on marketing an improved manufacturing technology for n-type solar cells together with ECN and a German partner (RENA). We are joining our forces and contacts and hope to realise a second milestone in the near future.’

ASML is holding a similar position in the chain for semi-conductors as Tempress does in the field of solar cells. At ASML, the buyers are now investing in the business. Is such a construction conceivable for Tempress in the future?

RP: ‘The buyers who are currently investing in ASML are large businesses, such as Intel, TMSC and Samsung; companies who have become completely dependent on ASML for the next generation of manufacturing equipment  for 450 mm wafers. These buyers want to exert influence on the product development strategy of ASML. Obviously, this is a unique development that should make the Netherlands, Inc. really proud. At the moment, Tempress is not yet indispensable for its clients, but this may change in the future. ‘It would be a nice endeavour to turn Tempress into the “ASML of the PV industry”’.