The global solar manufacturing industry is undoubtedly dominated by China, which accounts for about 71 per cent of the world’s solar manufacturing capacity. Moreover, solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing involves both pre-cell and post-cell processes, and China controls 97 per cent of the global market for the latter. In contrast, India has a mere 1 per cent share in the global solar manufacturing market, which can largely be attributed to the country’s efforts in improving its post-cell capacity.

While it is unlikely that India can topple China in pre-cell manufacturing, it aims to minimise import of foreign cells and modules. To this end, major solar players in India, including developers, have made efforts to expand and even establish manufacturing capacities. However, the machinery used to manufacture these cells and modules or “production lines” often has to be imported. Given the expansion of India’s manufacturing capacity, domestic players have been making strides in procuring and installing production lines at their factories.

A look at how the production line market has evolved in recent years, and the major players that manufacture and distribute these systems…

Market overview

Solar cell and panel production lines are usually offered as turnkey projects, wherein a firm agrees to fully design, construct and equip the manufacturing facility and “turn” the project over to the purchaser when it is ready for operation, against remuneration. Industry estimates suggest that a small line can produce about 30 panels per hour, a medium line can produce about 60, and a large line can produce 90. A recent innovation is the maxi line, which can produce up to 120 solar panels an hour, but requires all front-end processes to be fully automatic to ensure this speed. Unsurprisingly, China houses some of the major suppliers of solar production lines for both cells and panels.

The major suppliers for panel production lines include SC-Solar, CETC48, Double 100, Hangzhou ConfirmWare Technology, and Suzhou Horad New Energy Equipment. Other large global players include Mondragon Assembly from Spain and Ecoprogetti from Italy. The major suppliers for cell turnkey production lines are largely based in China and Germany. Chinese companies Jinchen and CETC48, which manufacture cell production lines, are also major developers of panel production lines. Other Chinese companies in the space include Ooitech, REOO Technology, Exact S.C. and CETC-E. The German companies include Centrotherm, GEC, Schmid and Singulus Technologies. Kenmec in Taiwan, Midsummer in Sweden and KA Industrial Engineering from Singapore are also large players in the cell production line space.

Recent global developments

With solar manufacturing picking up in Europe, equipment suppliers have reported surging levels of enquiries for new production lines. As solar PV cells are getting larger and more efficient, European equipment suppliers are now embracing flexibility. For the larger cells, module production equipment requires an increase in size, and in some cases, technology upgrades. To this end, longer and broader equipment is being adopted. Alongside this, their adoption is driving increased automation of processes. This switch to larger formats represents a turnaround from industry dynamics within the PV module manufacturing business. It is a huge contrast to the situation about a decade ago, when equipment suppliers would bring new tech and processes to the market and manufacturers would modify processes. Now, they are reactive and respond to mainstream technology and formats in the market.

Equipment suppliers are now innovating and adding flexibility to their production equipment platforms. The strategy involves designing production lines to make them adopt a range of cell sizes and enabling technologies. For instance, Geman stringer supplier teamtechnik released two new generations of its range in 2021, both capable of handling larger cells and multiple busbar configurations. These are the TT2100 i8 and TT4200 i8, on a single- and double-track configuration respectively. Similarly, Mondragon, the Spain-based single tool and production line supplier, reports that it has undertaken a number of projects for “high tech” lines, such as electrically conductive adhesive-based cell interconnection equipment for heterojunction modules. These include projects under the European Union-funded “Global Optimization of Integrated Photovoltaics System for Low Electricity Cost”. However, some manufacturers describe the manufacturer landscape in Europe as being in “turmoil”, as the switch to larger cells is happening more rapidly than many had expected.

In recent months, there have been some big deals in the global solar production equipment market. Swedish company Evolar is currently working on a solution for perovskite tandem cell production that will offer a turnkey production solution that will have customers producing perovskite solar cells within 18 months of signing a contract. In June 2021, Norway-based renewable energy developer Magnora increased its stake in Evolar from 28.44 per cent to 40.7 per cent. Earlier this year, building-integrated PV (BIPV) module manufacturer and equipment supplier Midsummer signed a deal to supply Russian nanotechnology provider JSC Rusnano with a BIPV panel production line. The equipment, called DUO machine, will be installed in a factory in Saransk, about 630 km east of Moscow. It will be operated by the Centre for Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials of the Republic of Mordovia, and its partner Solartek.

Indian scenario

In India, Chinese production equipment supplier, Jinchen Machinery has become a leading supplier of production lines to India’s major domestic solar cell and module manufacturers. In January 2021, Jinchen announced the signing of a deal with Mumbai-based manufacturer Waaree Energies for an automatic production line of 3 GW high efficiency PV modules. This marked the largest stand-alone project for any solar module equipment manufacturer in the world. Later, in June 2021, Gujarat-based Solex Energy Limited signed an MoU for acquiring 1.2 GW of module production equipment from Jinchen Machinery as it looks to expand its manufacturing capacity. The first phase of 600 MW is set to be commissioned by October 2021 and work for the second phase of 600 MW will start immediately after the first one is complete. Further, the production line will be fully automated and will be capable of manufacturing modules up to M12/G12 multi-busbar solar cells using Microgap technology. The facility will be located near Surat, and the factory is currently at an advanced stage of completion.

Jinchen also announced that it has received orders for about 10 GW of solar module production lines in India so far, and has a further 8 GW under discussion. The orders are from Tier 1 manufacturers in India, including Vikram Solar, Tata Power Solar, Adani, Goldi Solar, Premier Energies and RenewSys. The upcoming Jinchen lines in the country will provide the highest level of automation and bigger panels, as per the latest trend. The firm is set for even better performance this year, with large contracts already penned in India.

Even smaller manufacturing units such as the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, in December 2020, invited bids to supply module production equipment for a 50 MW manufacturing unit in Gandhinagar. So far, there are very few known Indian companies in this space. One such company is Ganshyam Solar Technology, which develops and distributes production line equipment. The company is located in Odhav district in Gujarat and produces equipment for both cell and wafer manufacturing. For wafer production, the company specialises in making turnkey production lines, band saws, cutting equipment, silicon recovery systems, wafer sorters, wafer counters, lifetime analysers, wafer grinding equipment, wafer polishing machines, and automatic wafer loading machines. For cell production, Ganshyam Solar develops cell turnkey production lines, chemical management equipment, etching equipment, laser etching equipment, liquid flow management systems, plasma etching equipment, power systems and gas/liquid flow management systems. Further, these production lines are designed and developed specifically for smaller-scale on-grid installations.

Key challenges and outlook

Globally, panels are getting larger and more efficient. This means that production equipment suppliers are offering more flexibility in their design and functioning. Going forward, production lines must be made future-proof so that manufacturers are not discouraged from setting up or expanding operations.

India, too, is entering the solar manufacturing space in a big way. However, based on accounts from a manufacturer, the average cost of building a 100 MW cell manufacturing facility is about Rs 800 million, excluding land and infrastructure costs. Further, alongside these costs, a manufacturer needs to take into account that there is no guarantee of consistent demand in the ever-changing policy space. This means that even with the production-linked incentive scheme, micro, small and medium enterprises have a big disadvantage when entering this space.

Summing up, solar cells and modules are increasingly being produced domestically, but this capacity is being built using production equipment that more often than not comes from China. While shifting this balance may be unrealistic, production lines must be built to last the test of time.