When technical disruption meets social innovation

ARMOR, the world leader in thermal transfer ribbons, fully committed to providing high tech solutions to support the energy transition

Created in 1922 and formerly a leading company in carbon films in France, ARMOR took a radical turn nearly a decade ago when they decided to take up the industrial challenge to use their strong know-how in thermal transfer for industrial printing and to channel this expertise into the energy transition. In 2010, ARMOR has decided to turn to the sun to offer a renewable energy source as an alternative to other energies. Thanks to its ASCA® film, ARMOR is now able to provide an ultra-thin organic photovoltaic film with unique properties and minimal environmental impact. They accepted to share with us why and how of such a success.

How was decided the technical shift from producing films for printers to producing flexible photovoltaic films? What were the arguments that convinced Armor and brought you to initiate such a fundamental transformation?

The decision to embark on the adventure of organic photovoltaics came from various origins. It began with the desire of ARMOR personnel, led by their CEO, Hubert de Boisredon, to provide innovative solutions to general society challenges; they were determined to provide everyone, everywhere, with an access to electric power. This prompted ARMOR to turn to solar – an inexhaustible source of power. And it is on the basis of the roll-to-roll wet coating process, used to produce thermal transfer rolls, a sector in which ARMOR is the global market leader, that the process was developed to produce the ASCA® organic photovoltaic film. This expertise is therefore an essential component in the company’s strategic decision.

Such a breakthrough innovation must have prompted many changes and transformation internally and externally: new markets, new clients, new ecosystem…how did you manage this transformation? What were the key elements that guided you in this journey?

The core of this transformation has been the long-term corporate vision. Major investment was required, in terms of time (nearly 7 years of R&D before the first products could be rolled out on the market) and financial commitment (some €100m to develop the technology over nearly 10 years).

A significant R&D effort was required at the outset, with further elements added as time progressed: a design department followed by a sales and marketing development department. And most recently, international expansion with the acquisition of the German operator Opvius, which enjoys unrivalled expertise in product integration, and a proposed joint venture in the United Arab Emirates with the Dubai-based company, Masar. This expanded team enables us to widen our expertise and target multiple markets.

The first demonstrators have now been installed and are providing extremely positive signs. ARMOR personnel are working hard to obtain the certification required for large-scale deployment, notably in building applications.

Lastly, continuous improvement is an integral part of the day-to-day activities of our industrial workforce continually striving to move forward.

What are the new functionalities enabled by the ASCA® film?

The ASCA® organic photovoltaic film offers numerous properties that augur well for the future of the technology, such as its low environmental impact and the ability to produce energy on any surface, especially where traditional photovoltaic technologies cannot be used, ensuring that the product is able to maximize the potential of solar energy.

It is lightweight. It weighs just 450g/m2, enabling it to cover all types of surface, even the most fragile or those unable to bear heavy weights, such as roofs, facades, shading structures and tents.

It is flexible, with a 2.5cm radius of curvature. It can be rolled up and unrolled, making it highly ergonomic. It fits all types of building (architectural form, materials) and objects (street furniture, signage, lighting systems, etc.).

It is semi-transparent (up to 30% light transmission), enabling it to cover structures such as farming greenhouses.

The bespoke design flexibility of the ASCA® organic photovoltaic film means it can be easily incorporated within all types of solutions.

The ASCA® organic photovoltaic film is 100% recoverable and contains no rare or toxic components.

It is manufactured using a low-carbon process. Its energy payback time (EPBT) is very low, just 3 months, whereas photovoltaic panels have an EPBT of between 1.5 and 3 years.

This organic & flexible photovoltaic technology is disrupting the traditional silicon photovoltaic. What are the strengths of this silicon-free technology the most appreciated by the end-users?

The main strength of the ASCA® OPV film is without doubt its mix of lightness, flexibility and transparency. This combination makes it possible to solarize surfaces previously inaccessible to 1st and 2nd generation panels. Facades, glazing, glass greenhouses, guardrails and even curved or lightweight structures are just some of the numerous examples. Furthermore, it can be bespoke designed to perfectly meet the requirements of each individual project. It can therefore be integrated within textiles, such as in solar covers for the Gazelle electric car, or be fixed to sun-shade strips using “ready-to-stick” modules, such as at the Cité des Congrès conference center in Nantes, France.

What are the applicative sectors for the ultra-thin organic photovoltaic film you are working on? Are there new markets that you want to address?

ARMOR is currently working on applications for various markets. The mobility and building sectors are areas to which the company is already deeply committed. ARMOR has therefore developed solar kits intended for populations without access to electricity, notably via partnership with UNESCO to offer these kits to 200 schoolchildren in Togo.

Regarding building applications, several different types of solutions are available. Firstly, “ready-to-stick” surface solutions. Surfaces made of metal (zinc, steel cladding, aluminum…), cement, glass or polycarbonate panels, textiles or ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) can be partially or fully covered in the OPV film. For example, since 2019 an agricultural greenhouse has been fitted with a solar system incorporating ASCA® OPV films. In terms of glass or polycarbonate, the film can also be directly integrated within the material, inserted between 2 layers. Buildings with this design are labeled BIPV (Building-Integrated Photovoltaics). This structural integration of the film within the material can also be achieved with textile or ETFE surfaces at building level.

With the emergence of the smart city, solar technology performs a key role, such as when integrated within connected street furniture, as demonstrated by the joint development with the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). Other applications are also possible: enabling users to recharge their devices via a USB port integrated within street furniture powered by solar energy, receiving traffic information for a pedestrian, cycle or vehicle route, or fitting a screen for users to connect with the street furniture.

Sensor applications also offer a very significant potential by extending the stand-alone time of domestic appliances, designed to reduce or even eliminate the need for batteries. The ASCA® photovoltaic film is so sensitive to light that it is able to act as both sensor and energy source.

Lastly, numerous disruptive innovations are currently being developed in the field of transport, such as driverless cars and vehicles, solar airplanes, hybrid aircraft, solar roads and ships solely powered by photovoltaic energy. Accordingly, in 2020 ARMOR developed a solar cover with ACPV for the Gazelle Tech electric car, extending the vehicle’s range by 8,000km per annum.

You are an international company with implantation all over the world. According to you, is there still something that makes you feel a French or European company? Are there European specificities/added-value that made it unique to develop R&D activities and business within the EU?

ARMOR’s historic roots are in France and Europe. But it is an inclusive and international company. Our mission is to expand our frontiers yet without jeopardizing company’s existing interests. Under the guiding influence of our CEO, Hubert de Boisredon, this is why we have established a business model known as co-industrialization. This consists of seeking international growth to create employment in France. In concrete terms, ARMOR manufactures semi-finished products at its French production site which are then forwarded to slitting units located virtually worldwide to be finished and packed before being dispatched to customers. Furthermore, through its photovoltaics business, ARMOR solar power films is positioning itself as a pioneer in a resurgent solar Europe.