Applied Material's Bold Solar Strategy

2 min read
Jun 3, 2024 8:00:00 AM
Applied Material's Bold Solar Strategy

Embracing change is an organization’s competitive advantage during an industry's disruption. Craig Hunter's insights offer a powerful lesson on the strategic bets companies must make to seize new opportunities.

At the heart of Applied Materials' solar foray was a drive to redefine its role. In the semiconductor space, the company felt constrained, unable to leverage its core expertise in film deposition and integration fully. The rapidly growing solar industry presented an enticing pathway to migrate up the value chain.  

As solar installations boomed in markets like Germany and Spain in the mid-2000s, a key challenge emerged - the polysilicon used in traditional crystalline silicon panels was in short supply, and prices skyrocketed. This created an opening for thin-film technologies to gain ground as a potentially disruptive, low-cost alternative.

Applied Materials saw an opportunity. By marrying its process knowledge with large-area thin-film deposition, it could deliver high-efficiency, low-cost solar panels at scale. The ambitious "SunFab" strategy was born—selling entire turnkey manufacturing lines, not just tools.

The Unconventional Business Model

Financing such ambitious manufacturing lines was a hurdle. Hunter's innovative pricing matrix aligned everyone's incentives. Customers paid a base rate, with Applied Materials earning more for higher output and efficiency—a classic pay-for-performance model.

"We would guarantee [Sunfab] is going to be this efficient," Hunter explained. "If the factory outperformed, we would get paid more."
Craig Hunter

This bold approach catalyzed $2.5 billion in contracted SunFab lines across multiple customers and regions. It demonstrated Applied Materials' commitment and represented a strategic pivot few could have foreseen from a semiconductor equipment maker.

Lessons in Timing and Perseverance

While the SunFab concept never reached its full potential due to challenging market forces in 2008, the story offers powerful lessons. First is the importance of timing - identifying nascent but potentially disruptive technologies before they reshape an industry.

As Hunter reflected, "You need something to incubate that technology." Government subsidies played an incubator role for solar energy, allowing the economy to improve rapidly amid oversupply until the technology could stand on its own.

The second lesson is perseverance. As First Solar's example highlights, long R&D runways are often required before disruptive innovations deliver impact. The cadmium telluride thin-film pioneer had been refining its process since the 1980s, finally reaching maturity when polysilicon prices spiked in the 2000s.

Strategic Explorations Drive Progress

While SunFab represented a calculated gamble that didn't fully pay off, Applied Materials' leaders saw value in the exercise. As Hunter shared, "They said, 'no regrets'... it was a worthwhile effort."

The solar program demonstrated the company's willingness to think outside its core markets. It gave the workforce a blueprint for strategic transformation, inspiring other leaders to explore new domains. Crucially, it signaled Applied Materials could evolve rather than be disrupted.

As Craig's story shows, embracing change through strategic growth initiatives is vital for any industry leader's longevity. While success is never guaranteed, such explorations open new pathways and can future-proof a business against disruption. The key is to persistently seek emerging opportunities before competitors - exactly what Applied Materials aimed to do with its bold solar bet.


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