Firm makes solar cells

Suniva thinks its future looks bright

Two assembly lines wind through the large, well-lit, humidity-controlled, brilliantly white room. Around the clock, workers tend the lines that each day bear 50,000 plain, thin squares on a six-hour journey from silicon wafer to solar cell.

Passed along from one machine to the next, each hand-sized ingot is weighed, shaped and reweighed, bathed, etched and cleaned, heated, cooled, lasered and tested.

As it nears the trip’s end, every cell is picked up by a technician who scans it for flaws that the machines might have missed. On the wall over his shoulder is a large American flag.

The symbolism is fitting, says Bryan Ashley, vice president of the Norcross-based company.

To the country and the economy, as well as to 100-employee Suniva, manufacturing matters, he said. “In order to have a strong economy, you have to make things. We can’t all be doctors and lawyers.

“We at Suniva are proud of the fact that we started in the United States. We are the only ones who make high-efficiency solar cells in the U.S.A.”

But American domination of global manufacturing ended a long time ago as a series of sectors disappeared or sent production overseas where labor, like materials, was cheap and regulations lax.

Perhaps U.S. manufacturers cannot compete against low-cost locations when it comes to making high-volume, low-margin commodities.

But the next step in technology need not be made overseas, Ashley said. “We are going to stay in the United States. We can be competitive here.”

Here happens to be a metro region saturated with service businesses, where a maker of things stands out. Yet Suniva, which started churning out solar cells a year ago Saturday, has its roots close to the heart of Atlanta.

The company evolved from the work of Ajeet Rohatgi, a professor at Georgia Tech’s photovoltaics center.

That proximity is one of the company’s advantages, said Derick Hill, Suniva’s integrator network manager. “We could take something directly from research to production within 24 hours.”

Suniva is targeting one of this century’s potentially huge markets, because when it comes to using the sun to make electricity, the sky is the limit.

Consider the alternatives — until recently, all much cheaper and easier than solar. For the most part, they remain cheaper, but coal spurs environmental concerns, nuclear power means huge investments and safety worries. Meanwhile, oil supplies are in question, with much of it lying beneath politically shaky sands.

Yet the sun shines on pretty much the whole planet.

The future — even for a manufacturer in metro Atlanta, even in a struggling economy — looks bright, Ashley said. “We plan to expand. We are hiring now.”

U.S. demand for photovoltaics will increase more than 500 percent, according to Solarbuzz LLC, a San Francisco-based industry consulting company.

Yet for the local economy, Suniva is pushing against the current.

Manufacturing, once accounting for nearly one-third of the nation’s jobs, has shrunk — and the fall has accelerated. Georgia, where the sector still represents 10 percent of all jobs, has lost about 200,000 jobs in the past decade.

Manufacturing’s advocates argue that much of U.S. job growth has been pegged to an unhealthy dependence on borrowing — while manufacturing can create wealth. They say the sector has greater economic splash than a service business. Its workers are typically paid more than retail jobs, while export companies trim the U.S. trade deficit.

Suniva, in its modest way, supports the local, economic “eco-system,” said Chairman and CEO John Baumstark, a former IBM executive.

“At Suniva, we have helped the companies around us such as local logistics companies that move our product. Uniforms need to be produced and cleaned for our staff. We purchase equipment from local companies for our manufacturing processes. We buy manufacturing supplies and products from local companies.”

Suniva’s cells are sold to companies that put them together in groups of 60 or 72 to make solar panels. That work is lower tech and lower margin and most of it is done in Asia. The assembled panels are sold around the world — including back in the United States, where a typical house would need about 20 of those panels.

Suniva, which is privately held, doesn’t talk about profitability or sales. But investors — including Goldman Sachs and several venture capital firms — spent $75 million to outfit the 73,000-square-foot Norcross facility and are spending $25 million more expanding it.

That still won’t be enough to meet demand, Suniva believes.

The company is waiting to see if it can get the loan to build a second, $250 million production site in a state where recession has pounded old-style manufacturing: Michigan.

If Suniva seems like a high-tech riff on rust-belt manufacturing, veterans of the older assembly lines might feel at home. Already in metro Atlanta, a number of laid-off workers from downsized or shuttered plants have done well at Suniva, Ashley said.

“They understand the way manufacturing works.”

About this story

This is the third in an occasional series by AJC business and economy reporter Michael E. Kanell that takes a look at manufacturing in metro Atlanta.

Each manufacturing company has its own vision, its own strategy and its own challenges. This is Suniva’s story.