SEMI is the global industry association that, among other things, helps forward the adoption of standards in the semiconductor industry.   

Standards in the semiconductor industry are one of the factors that allows you to buy an iPod for $100 or a DVD player for $29.  Of course, economies of scale help bring down pricing.  As does child labor in sweat shops.

Anyway, back to standards.  Standards in the semiconductor industry mean that substrates, materials, practices, sputtering equipment, line widths, light sources, and processes are known and shared and benefit all concerned.  The standard tools and processes are a known entity, and can be tweaked to suit the vendor's requirements. 

Additionally, the semiconductor industry has a long term road map, known strangely enough as the The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, or ITRS.  It's a fifteen-year outlook and assessment of the semiconductor industry’s future technology requirements and it drives semiconductor strategies for R&D today at manufacturers, universities, and national labs.

Bettina Weiss, Senior Director of Photovoltaics at SEMI, spoke at the monthly Silicon Valley Photovoltaic Society meeting at PARC in Palo Alto, CA on "Increasing Power of PV through Standards, Roadmaps, EHS, and Partnerships."  Bettina has worked at SEMI in several standards-related positions since joining the organization in 1996.  In 2008, she began coordinating all activities in SEMI’s newly establishedsolarsegment, the PV Group.

SEMI sees partnerships and standardization as a way of strengthening the solar manufacturing supply chain, addressing the industry’s growing pains and finding meaningful ways to drive down cost and accelerate deployment of solar energy.

What could be wrong with that?

Well, firstly, when SEMI's PV Group tried to organize a get-together to look at standards for this industry, only one cell maker showed up.  There were plenty of equipment vendors and other vendors along the value chain, but only one cell vendor. 

That prompted SEMI to engage in some vendor discovery with an industry survey -- more info here and here.   

Why would only one cell vendor be interested in standardization?

It's still relatively early in the era of large-scale photovoltaic production. And the processes that are used differ from vendor to vendor.  In fact, it's the processes that define the quality and performance of a vendor's product and what differentiates them from the competition.  And even in silicon-based solar, some solar manufacturers make their own equipment to build what is essentially a photodiode.

Why would a company like SunPower or SunTech want to share information about their processes?  And why would a company like SunPower or SunTech want to agree on a road map with their competition?

There are fundamental differences in the IP and value propositions in solar vs. semiconductors.  The IP in an integrated circuit relies on clever layouts and design and intelligent building blocks.  The IP in solar is, in many cases, in the process itself.  Why would any vendor surrender their differentiation?

James Amano, Director, International Standards at SEMI said, "While it was initially a struggle, cell makers are starting to come to the table -- for example, recent Standards activities in Europe have been instigated by Q-Cells and other heavy hitters.  While all companies obviously want to protect their IP, everybody has areas of inefficiency in their manufacturing processes that would benefit from standardization."

Standards in installation and permitting are another story, and the SolarTech organization works on that.