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Orbiting the Sun: Ohio’s Conforming Matrix, Pro-pak Provide Homegrown Support for First Solar’s Factories

Posted 30 November 2012 9:30 PM by Tom Cheyney

Part 9 in a series: First Solar spends more than $1 billion annually with over 1,000 U.S. suppliers across 35 states. In this ongoing series, we will explore the inspiring stories of companies growing in partnership with us.

Before First Solar started scaling its initial manufacturing operations in Perrysburg, Ohio, in the mid-2000s, times had turned tough in the greater Toledo area where the company traces its roots. The once-numerous automotive industry supply-chain companies had dwindled, and many of the surviving firms struggled to keep their doors open, with thousands of middle-class working men and women laid off in the process. When the fledgling thin-film photovoltaics manufacturer began to assemble its own network of suppliers, a pair of local outfits from very different parts of the value chain—Conforming Matrix and Pro-Pak Industries—rose to the challenge, saving jobs and creating new ones. They remain key partners among First Solar’s 200-plus suppliers located in Ohio.

With deep roots in the region, Conforming Matrix has produced custom machinery for dozens of industrial painting and coating applications, from automotive glass to plastic moldings and metal extrusions, for more than 70 years. “We have experienced welder-fabricators who can take raw steel coming in the door and build pretty much anything with it,” explains Chad McComas, Conforming Matrix’s CFO. It was the company’s expertise in building tools for applying high-quality glass UV coatings that led to the initial opportunity with First Solar, which needed a piece of equipment that could deposit the cadmium chloride conductive film layer onto the solar module glass as it passed through the production process.

Conforming Matrix

“We use reciprocating spray guns for automotive and general industry applications,” notes McComas. “The glass solar panels presented something new to us, since we’re typically spraying more conventional parts. We implemented our spray paint knowledge into the process for them, [where] the glass passes under a hood, and an applicator sprays back and forth across the glass as the conveyor takes it along.”

With the First Solar account comes the added bonus of repeat orders for the industrial machinery specialists. “A lot of times, our equipment is one-off; we design and build to a certain process and then it’s on to the next thing,” he relates. “It’s been nice to see we can design one and build multiples.” Dozens of Conforming’s tools populate First Solar’s production floors in Perrysburg and Malaysia, while nearly all of its own supply-chain materials and components needs are met by firms within a 30-mile radius of its Toledo factory.

Once the modules are completed and ready to ship, that’s where Pro-Pak comes in. The 50-year-old family business, located just a few miles from First Solar, has mastered low-cost, high-quality packaging, producing the latest iteration of sturdy, recyclable corrugated shipping boxes that each carry 50 thin-film modules successfully though distribution channels to their destinations at solar power projects in the United States, Canada, India and beyond. (First Solar’s projects also have on-site facilities to gather and bundle the boxes for recycling.) In an average week, at least a dozen truckloads of set-up units are shipped to the solar company, according to vice president and second-generation Pro-Pak guy, Tony Deiger. The total number of rejected packs by First Solar so far this year? Four.

If you’re thinking, “what’s so special about a cardboard box?” think again when it comes to Pro-Pak’s products. “We have, along with First Solar, developed some very strict quality standards that make sure that every box meets their expectations in terms of performance and cost,” he says. The packaging has changed dramatically over the last several years. Each new design has been through a series of rigorous set of tests developed by the International Safe Transit Association, where the materials and components are subjected to a battery of temperature, humidity, compression, shock, and vibration tests. If the packs successfully pass these extreme tests, they are placed into the distribution system.

Pro-Pak boxes filled with modules waiting to be installed.

“Their quality personnel don’t care if we’re manufacturing corrugated packaging, which is not a critical component of their solar panels. They view our product the same way and with the same strict criteria as they do their panels,” Deiger emphasizes. “When they visit our facility, which they do on a regular basis, they look at our QC processes with the same critical eye as if the products were made in their own manufacturing facility.”

“We have three packaging engineers on staff, and their job is to seek out areas of opportunity for cost saving and product improvement,” he continues. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to maintain our relationship with First Solar—because we’ve become experts at solar panel packaging. They have had little or no panel damage in the field due to defective packaging. They look at our company as an extension of their company.”

“We have never married ourselves to the automotive industry like many companies in our area,” Deiger says. “What we have tried to do, and First Solar is an excellent example of that, is to create partnerships with our customers and balance our business with customers from different industries. This has enabled us to continue to grow and expand”.

Contributor Tom Cheyney is Chief Curator of and director of Impress Labs' solar practice. He is the former Senior Editor of International.

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