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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Applied Materials curtails thin film business

Update 2:30pm. In response to a reader’s feedback, I’ve corrected the story.

The Merc this morning had a rather ambiguous story about the layoffs at Applied Materials that mark a retrenchment of its diversification from integrated circuits into PV.

GreenBeat (at VentureBeat) has a much clearer and more complete story that explains how the company is scaling back providing equipment to thin-film silicon manufacturers. (The Merc’s GMSV morning blog even acknowledges the superior VentureBeat coverage). PV-Tech also has a more precise story than the abbreviated Applied press release.

(Update: The press release itself says that Applied will no longer sell its SunFab integrated lines for manufacturing thin-film solar panels, but still plans to sell tools for thin film manufacturers. My original title “exits thin film business” was not true, but it’s hard to find what’s really happening behind the AMAT euphemisms.)

The VentureBeat story argues that Applied’s losses are just a matter of a bad bet, placing too many eggs on the future of thin-film amorphous silicon. The story predicts a cascade effect for two local PV manufacturers:
This is bad news for companies like First Solar and of course NanoSolar, which have both invested heavily in thin-film technology. Applied’s decision to migrate away from amorphous panels is yet another blow, a move that could raise the alarm among investors looking for smart, more capital-efficient investments in solar.
However, I think the GMSV commentary raises the broader and more important questions:
Others bring up that Applied CEO Mike Splinter indicated a few months ago that the U.S. solar industry was losing to China, which is building cheaper solar panels, and that the company’s latest move is symbolic of a broader problem for the U.S. energy tech industry. China is now the world’s largest exporter of solar panels, the Wall Street Journal says.
This seems to be one of the well-understood but little-remarked problems with America’s so-called “green jobs” strategy.

Consistent with the Vernon product life cycle thesis, in most tech industries the early production and manufacturing are in the developed home country, and it’s only later in the maturation of the industry that the production is moved offshore. Intel took 40 years to move manufacturing out of Silicon Valley, and similarly the software industry had a good run of several decades before penny-pinching American firms discovered Bangalore.

Today, even before American startups ramp up to meet domestic demand, they are shifting production (or contracting for production) to offshore locations. This not only has implications for the production workers, but also for the startup companies themselves: if the materials and production are offshore, is their value-add strong enough to preserve a permanent source of competitive advantage?

Of course, Apple successfully moved to contract PC manufacturing more than a decade ago — a pattern extended to the iPhone and iPad — and continues to post record sales and earnings. However, Apple is one-of-a-kind in the PC and cellphone industries, so it’s hard to say this is a feasible path to profitability for many companies.

The reality is that PV companies are producing technology-intensive, capital-intensive capital goods that produce commodity electrons. Because the substitutes — conventional electricity generation — are so cheap, they face commodity price pressures far earlier than in most tech industries.

So I think the GMSV concern is warranted: even if the irradiance and cost trends assure that California and the American Southwest will be powered by solar energy in 20 years, that doesn’t mean the profits for this infrastructure buildout will accrue to American firms. (NB: The $1.45b loan guarantee for a Spanish solar thermal producer.)

Perhaps it is my college-educated, college-teaching bias, but I also don’t think having American workers install foreign-made panels is the same as having US firms creating export-oriented manufacturing jobs in renewable energy.

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