The first major piece of equipment for First Solar Inc.’s new manufacturing line in Perrysburg Township rolled into town Wednesday, serving as a sort of unofficial kickoff for what will be the one of the company’s largest investments in its local solar panel plant.
“This is really kind of a milestone that marks the influx of the new technology and the start of our whole gearing up for a new production line,” company spokesman Steve Krum said.
The production floor at First Solar in Perrysburg Township has been emptied of old equipment to make way for the installation of series 6 solar module equipment that started to arrive on Wednesday.
The Tempe, Ariz.-based company plans to invest $180 million in the project, though no additional jobs are expected in the short term. That could change, however, depending on how the global solar-energy market receives the new Series 6 thin-film panels.
The plant has about 800 employees, after laying off about 400 in the fall when this project began and part of the assembly lines were shut down to make room for the new tooling.
First Solar was founded in Toledo in 1986 as Solar Cells Inc., and has long had a manufacturing presence here.
The Perrysburg Township location, at 28101 Cedar Park Blvd., is First Solar’s only North American manufacturing site, and the company continues to run its central global research and development work and quality testing out of the facility.
On Wednesday, the plant celebrated the arrival of the first of 10 vapor transport deposition coaters. In layman’s terms, it is a device that lays a thin layer of conductive film on glass. That film is baked and overlaid with another layer of glass.
“There’s two or three pieces that really, really matter, and this piece is one of those two or three pieces that really matter to what makes this special,” Mr. Krum said.
The machinery is made by Von Ardenne, a specialty industrial equipment provider based in Dresden, Germany. After it was shipped to Norfolk, Va., the equipment was driven by truck to Perrysburg Township, where it arrived just after 1 p.m.
Hundreds of First Solar employees greeted its arrival.
A vapor transport deposition coater arrives at First Solar on Wednesday in Perrysburg Township. The equipment is the first piece of equipment that will be used for the production of the series 6 solar module.
Officials said the remaining nine parts of that system will arrive in the coming weeks. The line is expected to go online in early 2018, with commercial production beginning by mid-2018.
Last November, First Solar announced it would cut about 27 percent of its global work force, including about 400 locally. The move was in part driven by what the company said was increasing competition from other low-cost producers.
To fight back, the company also announced it was accelerating the launch of its Series 6 panels, which officials said were more efficient and up to 40 percent cheaper to manufacture. Perrysburg Township will be the first of its plants to begin making the panels, though other facilities around the globe will make the solar panels.
To make room for the Series 6 line, First Solar shut down one of its two existing Series 4 manufacturing lines in Perrysburg Township, cutting the factory’s output by nearly two-thirds. About 300 of the 800 employees at the facility work on the line; the rest are in research and development and have other duties.
Mr. Krum said Wednesday that the company believes it will be able to launch Series 6 with the staffing it now has. The company plans to continue Series 4 production for as long as there’s demand for the product.
One of the big differences between the two series is size. The Series 6 modules are significantly larger, which is why the company had to start from scratch to install the new line.
Though the specialty equipment is coming from Germany, First Solar officials said it’s working with about 20 other U.S. and international vendors to build the line, including several from Ohio.
Though First Solar has said it needed to make changes to compete — as evidenced by the layoffs and investment in Perrysburg Township — officials say the market for solar energy has been strong in recent months. And that’s true even as the Trump Administration has shown a taste for fossil fuels over renewables.
First Solar shares had a brutal year in 2016, ending the year down more than 51 percent. Shares have rebounded this year, however. As of Wednesday, shares had gained back 26 percent to close at $40.49.
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