• Job: Wacker plant site manager
• Age: 50
• Education: doctorate in physical chemistry from University of Regensburg, Germany
• Experience: 22 years with Wacker; last served as vice president of operations for Wacker Chemicals in China
• Personal: He and his wife have two children
The Wacker Institute — a $5 million pilot plant and training facility at Chattanooga State Community College — has its grand opening Feb. 8 from 2 to 4 p.m. at 4325 Amnicola Highway.
CHARLESTON, Tenn. — A dozen construction cranes reach upward at the sprawling Wacker polysilicon plant site and tower over a rural piece of Bradley County landscape.
Unlike its fellow German multinational Volkswagen, whose Chattanooga plant appears as a big manufacturing operation under one roof, the Wacker facility will hold about 30 structures when complete in two years.
“It’s a little city,” said Konrad Bachhuber, Wacker’s site manager.
The Wacker plant will feature complex distillation columns producing polysilicon for the solar industry based upon 50 years of Wacker technical know-how, Bachhuber said in an interview last week.
“That’s the secret of Wacker’s continued success,” he said. “Never stop working because, otherwise, you fall behind.”
Bachhuber said the $1.5 billion facility, the biggest single manufacturing investment ever in the region, will produce quality polysilicon chunks in an efficient way.
Before arriving here in late 2011, Bachhuber spent three years in China and seven years before that overseeing polysilicon production at Burghausen, Germany, where Wacker employs 10,000 people.
“During those seven years, I had the chance to do capacity expansions, quite significant expansions,” Bachhuber said. He said that, together, the expansions equaled the investment the company is making in Tennessee.
After his time in China, the 50-year-old chemist was approached about overseeing construction and startup of Wacker’s Bradley plant — the biggest investment in the company’s long history.
“This takes it to the next level,” he said about the Tennessee factory.
Building gears up
Martin Richtberg, Wacker’s project manager, said in a separate interview that the company expects to have between 2,000 and 3,000 construction workers on site in mid-2012.
Richtberg said about 220 acres of the 550-acre site are being used for the current Wacker project, which is to start producing polysilicon by early 2014 and employ about 650 people. There’s room for expansion depending on market needs, officials said.
Bachhuber said Wacker is in the polysilicon business for the long term, despite what’s going on in the market for the product that’s a key ingredient in the building of solar power panels for homes and businesses.
According to the firm GTM Research, polysilicon prices hit record lows in 2011 and will head even lower this year.
“In 2011, in the polysilicon industry — and the solar supply chain in general — manufacturing outpaced end use,” senior analyst Brett Prior said in an industry report. “After a half-decade of silicon demand outstripping supply, the aggressive expansion plans finally overshot.”
While oversupply will push many companies to shutter plants and lay off employees, other low-cost players will thrive and expand their share of the market, GTM Research said.
Industry publication Recharge reported Wacker narrowly trailed Korea’s OCI last year in polysilicon production, with each holding about 12 percent market share.
Wacker is considered one of the industry’s big four polysilicon manufacturers, alongside OCI, GCL-Poly and Hemlock, which is building a plant worth more than $1 billion near Clarksville, Tenn.
Bachhuber said Wacker’s efforts to stay ahead of the competition ensure it has a strong market position.
“We’re not nervous,” he said about the ups and downs in the marketplace. “Our perspective is long-term.”
Bachhuber said he expects solar usage to grow.
“This is a megatrend,” he said, noting more alternative energy will be needed. “Polysilicon will play a significant role.”
In terms of construction, the Charleston plant is on track, though he’d like to see less rain.
“The biggest visible changes will be over the next month with buildings going up and more buildings going up,” he said.
Also, Wacker will begin bringing in equipment such as tanks and distillation columns, Bachhuber said.
Employee hiring is ramping up, with about 200 workers on board so far, according to Wacker.
“It’s a highly sophisticated process, so we need well-educated people,” Bachhuber said.
He said Wacker is using as many local suppliers as possible, and others are checking out the area to see if it makes sense to open branches here. Bachhuber said that would save time and money as well as provide flexibility of service.
“A facility of such a scale attracts additional partners,” he said.
Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...