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First Solar shows off production line under development for new panels

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    Production takes place on a new assembly line at First Solar Inc. plant in Perrysburg Township where the company's new Series 6 solar panel takes place.

    FIRST SOLAR INC.

  • Manf-PBG-1655-X-22817085-jpg

    Production takes place on a new assembly line at First Solar Inc. plant in Perrysburg Township where the company's new Series 6 solar panel takes place.

    FIRST SOLAR INC.

  • Manf-PBG-1115-X-22817095-jpg

    Production takes place on a new assembly line at First Solar Inc. plant in Perrysburg Township where the company's new Series 6 solar panel takes place.

    FIRST SOLAR INC.

  • Manf-PBG-1076-X-22817087-jpg

    Production takes place on a new assembly line at First Solar Inc. plant in Perrysburg Township where the company's new Series 6 solar panel takes place.

    FIRST SOLAR INC.

First Solar Inc. gave a glimpse into the company’s future Tuesday at an unveiling of a new production line and its new Series 6 solar panel that will be made at its North American factory complex in Perrysburg Township.

Unfortunately, as things now stand, the new production line is so efficient and flexible that First Solar expects to maintain its current staffing levels of 750 workers, yet produce enough panels annually to generate 600 megawatts of power.

That’s the same capacity it had a year ago when it used 1,100 workers to produce panels that could generate 600 megawatts. It laid off about 350 when it started retooling the factory for the new solar panel production.

But Steve Krum, a spokesman for the Tempe, Ariz.-based company, said First Solar does not yet know the market demand for the Series 6. If it takes off, the company might need more production.

For now, though, First Solar officials said they are focused on getting all parts of the new production line working together. The company runs multiple tests daily to evaluate where things stand.

The company began in Toledo and is now based in Tempe, Ariz., but has its sole manufacturing site in North America in the Toledo suburb.

On Tuesday, it invited nearly 50 Wall Street analysts and media members inside to see what has been taking place during the past year, when First Solar spent $177 million to retool the plant for Series 6 production beginning early in next year’s second quarter.

“We have 143 new pieces of equipment. It all has to work together before we can commercialize our products in 2018,” said Mike Koralewski, the global manufacturing leader for First Solar.

But once in production, the Series 6 will be nothing short of revolutionary, Mr. Koralewski said.

“It’s a game-changer for both the industry and this manufacturing site,” he added.

The Series 6, which will replace the previous Series 4 solar module still made in a second factory at the Perrysburg Township site, has thin-film solar panels that are three times the size of its predecessor. It also is thinner, lighter, and while company officials won’t say so for the record, they believe the new panel technologically will have greater efficiency than the Series 4.

The Series 4 now averages 17 percent efficiency, meaning it converts 17 percent of the sun’s energy to electricity. In tests, the Series 6 panel size was cut into thirds so it could be finished on Series 4 production equipment.

Each third reached 17 percent efficiency, leading First Solar officials to speculate that the Series 6 will be at least 17 percent efficient but likely more than that as a single unit. Each unit will have a power rating of 420-445 watts.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Series 6 glass — which measures about 6½ feet by 4 feet — move through the various stages of the new production line, which snakes its way throughout a factory that had been stripped to the bare floor earlier this year before new assembly machinery arrived in June.

Starting with a basic piece of glass, the would-be panel moves along 1½ miles through several stations where it gets cleaned, coated, baked, etched, checked, given attachment hardware, laminated with a protective layer, and labeled.

Unlike the Series 4 line, the new production line does not need as much space. As a result, large open spaces could be seen here and there in the plant.

Mr. Koralewski said the line is built in a way where two panels can run side by side during certain processes to increase production. If product builds up too much, there are areas where unfinished panels can be routed to holding racks just off the line.

It means that production can be increased or slowed depending on need while using the same number of workers, company officials said.

That keeps production costs down, but the real advantage is the panel’s size, Mr. Koralewski said.

First Solar, which began in 1986 in the Toledo area as Solar Cells Inc., uses thin-film technology based on a cadmium-tellurium formula. Other panel makers uses a formula based on silicon.

For years the silicon-based panels were much larger but the Series 6 matches their size, which makes the First Solar panels very competitive. And because they are larger, installation costs are cut by nearly a third because there are fewer panels and they also are easier to install than previous versions.

“When you’re making a solar farm with 8 million panels, that makes a huge difference,” Mr. Krum said.

First Solar also will make Series 6 panels elsewhere. It is is expanding a production facility in Vietnam to annually make panels that can produce 2.4 gigawatts. It also is upgrading a facility in Malaysia to make the Series 6.

Not all employees at Perrysburg Township produce panels. About 600 employees work in research and development, supply-chain sourcing, customer support, information technology, and other roles.

First Solar was founded as Solar Cells by the late Harold McMaster. In 1999, it was sold to True North Partners LLC and was renamed. The company sold public stock in 2006.

Also on Tuesday, First Solar announced full-year 2018 financial guidance. Forecast net sales for 2018 are $2.3 billion to $2.5 billion, with earnings per share forecast at between $1.25 and $1.75. The guidance includes production ramp-up costs of approximately $60 million and start-up expenses of approximately $110 million associated with Series 6 in 2018. Last year, the company had a loss of $357.9 million, or $3.48 a share, on sales of $2.95 billion.

On the Nasdaq market Tuesday, First Solar shares gained $3.94 to close at $61.21.

Contact Jon Chavez at jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.

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