SolarMax owner Sputnik restructures

Switzerland’s Sputnik Engineering, maker of the stalwart SolarMax brand of PV inverters, has initiated a restructuring process that could see nearly one-quarter of its Swiss workforce let go next month.

Despite “positively” judging its long-term commercial prospects, Sputnik, which makes string and central inverters, says a “strategic reorientation” of the company is necessary to remain competitive in the fast-evolving global inverter sector.

Sputnik, a pure-play PV company founded in the early 1990s, has entered into a consultation process required by Swiss law which could see it trim as many as 70 jobs from its 300-strong workforce in Biel, Switzerland in August.

With 360 employees worldwide, Sputnik supplies both the residential and utility-scale PV markets globally – shipping 620MW of inverters last year. By comparison, Germany’s SMA Solar, the market leader, shipped more than 7GW.

Nevertheless, SolarMax is a long-standing and well-regarded brand in the European market, and the challenges facing Sputnik reflect the seismic forces reshaping the $7bn global inverter industry.

Like SMA – which is undergoing its own wrenching downsizing process – Sputnik rode the back of the booming European market in recent years, only to see the sector’s momentum suddenly pivot away from the EU.

Sputnik has sales offices across the EU, from Greece to Bulgaria to the UK, but it did not open its first international office until last year – in Australia – followed by two more foreign branches this year in the US and Chile.

Any restructuring process is likely to see the privately held company continue shifting its focus towards non-EU markets.

In addition to pivoting its sales focus, the company's manufacturing strategy must also take into account the rapid deflation of inverter prices, which are set to fall from $0.22/W last year to $0.14/W by 2016, according to market researcher GTM.

Unlike the PV module sector, which is undergoing a process of consolidation, the inverter sector is the midst of a temporary fragmentation as new markets open up around the world, with their own idiosyncratic electrical grid codes and regulations.

SMA has seen its share of the global market plunge from 40% in 2010 to less than 20% in the final quarter of last year.

Eventually, however, experts expect the inverter space to consolidate as well.

The inverter industry has seen two major acquisitions in recent months in ABB’s $1bn takeover of Power-One – finalised yesterday – and Advanced Energy’s takeover of REFUsol.