Behind TW Solar’s Tongwei Speed

 Behind TW Solar’s Tongwei Speed

Tongwei Solar  or TW Solar, as it is known in the industry, is probably not a name that comes up readily among a roll call of market leaders from China, especially for readers in India. But readers are missing something big here.

The Size That Matters

TW Solar is the world’s largest solar cell manufacturer today. With a manufacturing capacity of 20 GW. And if you missed how all this happened, you could be pardoned, because it got here in a span of six years, between 2013 and 2019. Hence the sobriquet, ‘Tongwei Speed’, or even ‘Chengdu speed’, terms that the firm’s senior management frequently uses when describing their journey. Chengdu, of course being one of the three cities where they have manufacturing plants, with two others in Hefei and Meishan. The firm closed 2019 with revenues of $1.44 billion.

Today, decisions taken at Tongwei Solar impact global prices of solar cells. Thus, in 2018, when it started publishing cell pricing information on its official website on a monthly basis, it was a big call, attracting both media and stock market attention for the impact these daily announcements would have on world solar cell markets. The focus on the backend of cell manufacturing, the most critical input for module manufacturers, also means that till recently, it was happy to focus on the China market, which hosts the world’s biggest module manufacturers too. It is only recently that it started looking outside at markets with module makers it could target, finishing 2019 with 1.5 GW of exports finally.  But before all that, more about ‘Tongwei Speed’.

Six years ago, no one could have foreseen Tongwei’s ascendance.

The Big Shift

Tongwei started off as a firm focused on agriculture, besides aquatic feed, back in 1982. That business still exists. “ After over 30 years endeavor in agriculture since 1982, we are the leading player in this field. As we are specialized in aquatic feed, we are connected to thousands of farmers, especially those engaged in aquaculture who earn a lot of water surface resources”, says Michael Ao, Head of Marketing and Sales at the firm. That also explains the firm continued efforts to build solar solutions that can work in agricultural land too, by allowing aqua farming underneath, or other farming activities. An area where it hopes to build on too.

It was in 2013 that Tongwei made its decisive diversification into solar cell manufacturing. TW Solar Hefei was it first stop, located in Hefei Hi-tech Industry Development Zone, Anhui province. The acquisition became the template for the firm’s frenetic expansion. Formal solar operations started from November 18, 2013 and it now has more than 6GW capacity at the plant.

Phase I of Hefei Base has 5 poly-crystalline silicon cell production workshops with 40 production lines, ranking top of the line in PV industry.

As Phase II of Hefei Base finished construction on January 8, 2019, Tongwei Solar started the project of 8GW high efficiency crystalline silicon solar cell. This project fully adopts Rear Passivation technology and features in high efficiency mono-crystalline silicon cell unmanned manufacturing, smart factory and digitalized workshop, which will further increase efficiency and boost profitability and consolidate its lead in high efficiency crystalline silicon solar cell production.

Today, with total production capacity of just over 20GW, the firm claims a 10-12 percent global marketshare in solar cells. A number it plans to take to 30GW and 15 percent marketshare, by the end of 2020.

This focus has been achieved with a very sharp focus on research today, that has made Tongwei the benchmark for manufacturing excellence too.

michael ao, tongwei

Michael Ao

Alan Xie, Tongwei

Alan Xie

Calling it intelligent manufacturing, Alan Xie, General Manager at the Chengdu plant says  “In terms of intelligent manufacturing, we went through a lot of stages. First, we started from the automation of equipment, and then we moved on to the automation of a single production line or even an entire workshop. In the meantime, we also had collaboration, both software and hardware, with local equipment suppliers and automation integrators, to finally have our intelligent workshop today. “ This has meant a sharp jump in productivity over the past 4 years by almost 50%, even as manpower count went down by 30%, as robots and automation have replaced workers.

In Chengdu, its second manufacturing centre with a total capacity of 10 GW, each of the four phases of fresh manufacturing expansion was achieved in 7 months or less, earning its well earned moniker of Tongwei Speed or ‘Chengdu speed’.

After taking in Meishan numbers, Tongwei Solar has grown to an 8,700 strong employee firm in six years and its c-Si cell capacity, distributed among the three cell production bases has leaped from 1.2GW to 20GW.

The Manufacturing Focus

Tongwei Solar’s scale has brought down costs, and brought in profitability, a combination increasingly critical to survival in the competitive sector.

Michael Ao, head of marketing & sales, told Saur Energy, “In terms of non-silicon costs, Tongwei Solar is already at the lowest cost in the industry or even around the world. Every quarter we have a clear cost reduction target in place and we are working hard to get there.”

At its Chengdu plant, Tongwei Solar has set up a total of 16 fully-closed c-Si efficiency cell production lines. These automated and intelligent production lines have helped Tongwei become the first company to establish digital workshops and intelligent factories in the global PV industry.

China Done, Now The World

Tongwei, like most Chinese firms in the sector, is serious about going global, as cost pressures domestically, and massive capacity expansions create the need for newer markets. The firm claims to have shipped to over 30 countries worldwide, with Europe, the Middle East, India, Japan and South Korea being the main focus areas.

Michael Ao adds, “Tongwei Solar is a cell-based manufacturing company, so we are paying more attention to global cell markets. If we look at the big picture, the mainstream countries currently capable of producing modules locally are India and Vietnam. South American markets, such as Brazil and Mexico, are also growing fast. These are the emerging markets with growth potential for cells.”

In a sector where numbers can be difficult to get, Tongwei claims to have an unmatched profitability record.  The firm claims that by December 2019, it led the sector with 64 months of consecutive profitability. Alan Xie adds that “China’s PV industry is heading towards a specialised and technology-intensive market. While elimination and integration is inevitable, top companies will attract more resources. Continued profitability is decisive in how far a company can go.” The firm cites its location in Sichuan province (for its Chengdu plant) as a definite advantage, where it has access to a pool of quality manpower too.

Shaping The Future

With its word carrying the weight of numbers and manufacturing clout, Tongwei’s views on the future of the market matter. Like the future of poly versus mono cells. That has special significance for a poly dominated market like India.

Alan Xie, weights in. “From the perspective of sales, the recognition of mono cells is higher and higher in the market. The poly cells saw a continuous declining market in the last two quarters. In the last quarter of 2019, most poly cell manufacturers had no production since November.

They will gradually withdraw from the market. This round of withdrawal might be very different from those in the past years when everyone just stopped for a moment. However, we believe a great number of enterprises will not come back after this round, We have some Indian friend presenting today, who may know well that India is also transforming from poly to mono, which means the last market of poly is also shrinking. So we think the increasing share of mono cells is inevitable. Our prediction of mono cell’s 90% share is conservative. It can even be more, subject to the terminal market demand and the price of mono cells.

Decisive views indeed.

Tongwei has also actively promoted HJT SHJ cell efficiency ramp production research. In June 2019, the first HJT cell of R&D project Phase I was successfully rolled off and its conversion efficiency reached 23%. Tongwei subsequently succeeded in lifting this figure to 23.68% within around six months.

India, where cell manufacturing capacity is barely 1.5GW, with most manufacturing focused on modules, the focus on polycrystalline cells due to the cost squeeze might shift sooner than many industry watchers estimate, as developers and module makers see the efficiencies of mono cells from firms like Tongwei outweigh the cost advantages, perhaps even at Tongwei Speed.

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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna has been a media professional for over 20 years. He is the Group Editor of Saur Energy International