The simplest way to describe pilot-scale production is as an experiment, the point of which is to replicate a result and establish a consistent average.

Assumptions based on little data do not count. Until it is proven by methodically repeating the experiment, the guess remains a guess.

Traditionally, pilot-scale production has taken ten, shrinking to five years, to produce commercial technology. However, with accelerating demand, particularly for multi-megawatt installations, the timeline for establishing repeatability and assessing reliability has decreased, and reliance on rapid tests and the assumptions based on them has increased. Meanwhile, compressed margins have pushed manufacturers to streamline quality control measures, assuming rapid tests would pick up the slack.

Outsourcing, always a factor in the PV industry, has compounded problems, as module buyers cannot be sure whose cells are inside the module, no matter the brand, or, in some cases, know what manufacturer assembled the cells into the module.

As the time from pilot scale to commercial production has shortened, quality in the field has decreased, and failures have increased.
Pilot-scale production is a process undertaken to find a cell or module technology’s average performance in terms of reliability and efficiency. The process involves repeated testing to arrive at a stable average. As indicated earlier, pilot production takes two to five years for new technologies. New manufacturing facilities, even module assemblers, require a period of pilot-scale production. The addition of new equipment in an already functioning facility involves a period of pilot scale. Pilot-scale production includes tuning equipment and adjusting flow rates, adjusting consumable formulas (adhesives, for example),

For example, research and development into SunPower’s crystalline IBC (Interdigitated Back Contact) crystalline cell began in the 1970s at Stanford University. In 1975 research was published on IBC cells. In 1987 Ron Sinton of Sinton Instruments, winner of the 2014 Cherry Award, and a team at Stanford developed a 3 mm x 5 mm IBC cell with 28.3% conversion efficiency. This cell, which could not be soldered and was not stable, was a research step on the long innovative timeline from idea through commercialization.

During the early 2000s, US-based Applied Materials and Switzerland-based Oerlikon used their experience in manufacturing and flat-screen television production to develop multijunction, thin-film silicon-based solar panels (micromorph) manufacturing lines. Both companies assumed that turnkey manufacturing would shorten the time from pilot scale to commercial production. Neither company succeeded, and both abandoned their efforts.

Pilot-scale production is expensive and as margins have shrunk, so have pilot-scale timelines.

Pilot-scale production remains crucial to the future of the photovoltaic industry. Shortening the process and using engineering models and testing to estimate reliability and conversion efficiency leaves open the likelihood of poor quality modules and failures in the field.