Above Image: Fully automated high-power semiconductor module production cell at Lenzburg


High-power semiconductors underpin many aspects of the energy transition, including grid connection of renewables, electrification of transport and improvement of grid resilience.

This is good for ABB Power Grids – with its expertise in power electronics and impressive capabilities in the demanding business of high- power semiconductor manufacturing – and presumably also for Hitachi, which is currently in the process of buying the ABB power grid business, with completion expected in the first half of this year.

It also more than justifies a major automation and digitalisation programme that ABB embarked on in 2014 at its Lenzburg semi-conductor factory in Switzerland, which ABB now calls its “factory of the future” and which provides a powerful demonstration of what the much talked about concept of Industry 4.0 looks like in practice.

Digitalisation, with the ABB Agility platform as its backbone, is one of ABB’s key business offerings and the Lenzburg project can be seen as evidence that “it practices what it preaches.”

Called Genesis – “as ABB realised that something completely new was on the verge of creation” – the aim of the eight-year long project, which is still under implementation at the site, and is being carried out with the fundamental requirement that there is no impact on production, is total automation of high-power semiconductor module assembly, including testing and the ability to deal with several different types and generations of semiconductor technology.

Genesis was recognised as a high investment and high risk game-changer of a project, so to minimise the risks and help justify the costs a pilot production line employing the full portfolio of new technologies and concepts was installed and tested over 18 months. In parallel the final automation concept was developed in detail and its feasibility assessed in a simulation.

Profitability estimates met expectations, and the investment was approved.

Genesis has involved a major mobilisation of people (about 200) and resources, with a full time project management team devoted solely to it, implementation of over 100 subprojects, creation of over 20 new production cells, adaptation of 35 items of equipment and connection of 120 pieces of equipment to the control system, and deployment of some 55 robots (40 of them ABB-supplied) plus 20 purpose-built autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs).


Autonomous guided vehicle at Lenzburg


The production cells each contain equipment loaded and tooled by robots, with material logistics handled by the AGVs. “There is no need for a fixed connection between the individual production cells”, allowing a variety of different production routes to be employed and offering considerable flexibility, a striking feature of the Lenzburg facility.

The entire process is orchestrated and synchronised via ABB Ability Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM), which provides “agile and autonomous production”, says ABB. As well as production flexibility, in terms of product mix, routing, and volume, other benefits arising from Genesis include: increased productivity and throughput; shorter delivery lead times and reduced capital commitment; faster reaction to changing end user requirements; enhanced production process reproducibility and thus product quality; full traceability of product, process and material data; and improved product yield.

The investment in Genesis is part of ABB’s efforts to maintain a leadership role in power electronics, where full control of
the semiconductor value chain (rather than outsourcing) is seen as crucial for achieving the necessary quality and reliability, and retaining control of IP.

An important commercial driver in the power electronics business is anticipated future demand for HVDC, both classical (line commutated, thyristor based) and VSC (voltage source converter) type, employing IGBTs, as in ABB’s HVDC Light technology.


HVDC becoming mainstream: black, systems in operation; red, planned (source ABB). Currrent installed base 200 GW, of which about 70% is employing ABB technology


HVDC is becoming mainstream in all corners of the world, ABB notes (see maps) and is likely to see increasing deployment in the coming years thanks to a number of advantages it has over AC, for example: lower losses over long distances, with essentially no technical limits to the potential length of an HVDC cable; suitability for underground and subsea transmission systems; greater controllability and ability to improve grid performance overall; ability to connect asynchronous networks (eg, one grid to a neighbouring grid to improve stability and accommodate fluctuating renewables); suitability for connecting offshore wind at large distances from shore; and low short-circuit currents.


HVDC Light installations (in operation, under construction, planned) (source ABB). Over half of the world’s VSC links use HVDC Light, according to ABB


ABB anticipates that the “next step in the evolution of HVDC will be movement towards an HVDC grid.” The first such grid, the Zhangbei multi-terminal project, is currently under construction in China, employing ABB VSC HVDC technology. Delivery of wind power via network based architecture, says ABB, will ensure more stability and reliability in meeting anticipated higher demand during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, enabling integration of remote wind, solar and hydro capacity (up to about 4.5 GW).

In 2014 ABB developed the 3000 A StakPak IGBT module to enable the Zhangbei project, the company says.

In time, ABB sees HVDC grids coming to Europe and North America, for example for connecting clusters of offshore wind installations, creating further markets for Lenzburg’s high- power semiconductor modules.

Some ABB HVDC milestones

First commercial HVDC link, Gotland, Sweden, 1954

Launch of HVDC Light (Voltage Source Converter based, employing IGBTs, 1997 • NordLink, 1400 MW, 623 km (516 km subsea), connecting Germany to Norway (and its hydro resources), due to start operation in 2020

North Sea link, Norway–UK, 1400 MW, due to enter operation in 2021, world’s longest subsea power interconnection, 730 km

2375 km HVDC link, Rio Madeira, Brazil • Xiangjiaba—Shanghai link, China, 6400 MW, 2000 km

Southern Hami–Zhengzhou link, China, 8000 MW

World’s first hybrid HVDC breaker, 2012, “resolving the largest roadblock in the development of an HVDC grid”

World’s first multi-terminal UHVDC transmission link – India, North East Agra, India (“major step towards a true DC grid”)

 World’s first DC grid, Zhangbei multi- terminal project, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, China. 4500 MW of remote wind, solar, hydro for Beijing, enhancing power reliability for 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Described as world’s largest and most advanced VSC based HVDC system. Four interconnected HVDC stations in a ring network of 648 km. Optimises and balances power flow and helps reinforce AC grid

Wudongde multi-terminal project, China. First hybrid HVDC project combining VSC and ‘classic’ line commutated converters at 800 kV. 8 GW, 1489 km, linking hydro to load centres

Converter technology for DolWin 5, German offshore wind farm connection includes ABB Ability based MACH (Modular Advanced Control for HVDC) system for controlling the connection between the wind farm cluster and the onshore AC grid)

 UK's first HVDC link for offshore wind, Dogger Bank (Creyke Beck A and B).

Above Image: World’s first HVDC grid