Builders of solar panels (and semiconductors and hard disk drives, for that matter) need to focus on technology processes, assembling, testing and shipping their product.  The minutiae of the equipment used to make these products materialize is important, but is not the core focus of these firms.

If you tour the factory floor of a modern solar plant, you'll likely find a paucity of people and a lot of automated equipment.  Ever wonder where that equipment comes from and how it gets made?  Standard machinery for commodity-level photovoltaics comes from Applied Materials, Oerlikon or others.  But what about custom equipment that one might see in the new breed of photovoltaic firms like First Solar, Solyndra, MiaSole, NanoSolar or Solaria?  There is no standard tool set for CIGS or CdTe or CPV.  Where do manufacturing tools for those firms come from?  They can't be bought off the shelf.

Companies are faced with the choice of attempting to build everything themselves, reinventing the wheel, and risking a loss of focus on their core product. Or they can outsource this part of their business to an expert.  In the case of custom solar manufacturing equipment, one of those experts is Fremont, California's Owens Design.  I met with John Apgar, President, and Mark Danna, Senior Director of Business Development on Wednesday.

Owens is a 26-year-old, 50-employee Silicon Valley firm with a deep history in semiconductor and hard-disk-drive-media manufacturing equipment.  Over the last few years, Owens' business has shifted so that it is now 70 percent solar related -- certainly an indicator of the ascension of the solar industry and a testament to the difficulties in semiconductors.

The company's business model allowed them to adapt quickly to the solar industry.  Owens is a systems developer that partners with their customers to provide turn-key systems incorporating robotics, software, machine vision -- whatever the customer specs call for.  This means the customer does not have to worry too much about grippers, motors, vacuums, chucks, wire harnesses, pneumatics and all that assorted hardware. 

Some of the solar projects that Owens has shipped include:

  • Fabricating odd solar form factors
  • CPV assembly lines
  • CIGS on flexible substrate assembly equipment
  • CIGS process automation
  • c-Si cell handling automation equipment
  • Cell testers for binning unique form-factor photovoltaics
  • a-Si encapsulization

Here's a video of an Owens Design flash test system.

Their customer list includes Applied Materials, KLA Tencor, Intel, Seagate, GT Solar, Solaria and many more.  Owens is tight-lipped about the names of some of their current solar customers, but it's a fair bet that they are working with many of the major VC-funded CIGS players -- and body language during the enhanced interrogation part of the interview indicates they might be working with First Solar.

The firm needs to be very careful in the way they handle IP to maintain the trust of their customers.  The customer maintains ownership of the design rights of the equipment, as well as the documentation.  Their competition includes ATS and lots of small companies in a fragmented market.

The firm has manufactured and installed more than 1,000 systems and ships between 10 and 15 new tool designs a year, a swift pace in this industry.  Owens is a behind-the-scenes company that is enabling the solar industry to achieve the same level of automation that drove the semiconductor industry to high volumes and lower costs.