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Value Chain Activity: Manufacturing Thin-film Modules

Manufacturing thin-film modules consists of depositing photovolatic material on a substrate, structuring it into cells to form an electric circuit and wire and frame it depending on application.


Industry Context

Barriers to entry

For development and small-scale production, there are few barriers, as companies like Aja International specialise in providing small-scale sputtering equipment. However, when scale becomes important, access to capital might become a barrier.


Upstream supply chain without bottleneck

Suppliers are chemical companies that produce high-purity metals such as CdTe, GaAs etc. The supply chain is less constrained than polysilicon and therefore much more reliable.



The future face of solar electricity with high efficiency at low cost has not been seen yet. But it will most likely emerge from thin-film technologies, probably with organic or other materials that are not in present-day solar cells. No wonder, this industry section experiences a very diverse mix of big-hitters (Sharp), start-up companies and universities. Companies with a long-term vision should be present in this field. Venture-finance companies may find it easier to get through the 2009 downturn than highly leveraged firms.



This is a very dynamic segment with lots of up-start companies, some venture-funded. There are also a number of companies that also produce crystalline technologies. Those companies tend to be in the amorphous silicon thin-film segment. The organic photovoltaics segment is mostly covered by research institutes rather than private companies.

Product Differentiation

The main distinguishing feature is again the efficiency, followed by appearance (flexible substrate or module) and temperature dependence. The close integration with building-integrated pv allows for a lot of product differentiation.

Cost Structure

Cost is all important, as this is part of the value proposition of thin-film technology as opposed to crystalline-based. This is particularly treu in the amorphous silicon section where there are many producers. The cost leadership falls to FirstSolar, offering CdTe- based modules. FirstSolar's entire business model is based on cost and efficiency, built on economies of scale and optimizations in the supply chain (for instance with metal supplier 5NPlus).

PV Cell




The main competing technology is of course crystalline silicon-based, though in building-integrated pv there, crystalline module just don't provide the flexibility in shaping. However, with the huge drop in crystalline module prices, thin-film producers must look very closely at costs.

Company Details:

Here is a list of selected thin-film companies, ordered according the underlying technology. Companies tend to follow only one thin-film strategy or they split up into several legal entities, as is the case with Q-Cells. See notes on corporate ownership in the table.

Name Country Comments
Silicon-based Thin-film
Nano PV United States NanoPV have developed a low-cost technology based on amorphous silicon with the addition of hydrogen - Si-H, which increases efficiency.
CIS / CIGS based Thin-Film
Ascent Solar Technologies Inc United States Produces flexible CIGS thin film structures (blankets)
SoloPower Systems United States SoloPower produces ultra light-weight (only 1/5 of weight of a crystalline module per area). Capacity scalable to 220MW
Nanosolar CIGS plus proprietary production methodology enables Nanosolar to custom-print solar modules.
Solar Frontier Japan Solar Frontier produces CIS thin-film technology with better performance in higher temperatures and lower light.
CdTe based Thin-Film
Calyxo Germany Calyxo produces CdTe technology modules.
First Solar United States The world's largest thin-film module manufacturer
3rd Generation
Solar Energy Materials Initiative UK This initiative is part of Oxford University. Research into biomimetic solar cells: Including use of melanin and eumelanin, which may continue to deliver power even when light is off!

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