The Sky’s the Limit

The Weekly Report – June 12, 2023
Solar module manufacturer Heliene is poised for continued rapid growth in a high-demand industry.

It’s always a treat to profile a company that highlights a number of relevant topics and challenges at once. In the current issue of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine, writer Peter Passi gives readers a look inside Heliene, a Canada-based manufacturer that operates a massive solar module production facility in tiny Mountain Iron, Minnesota.

Since 2017, when it took over the space that once housed a company called Silicon Energy, Heliene has dealt with rapidly changing technology, uncertainty surrounding federal solar incentives, supply chain limitations, and staffing shortages.

Despite these challenges, Heliene has maintained steady growth, more than tripled its manufacturing footprint, embraced automation, replaced production lines, and remained committed to ongoing ISO training to ensure constant operational improvement. Heliene is now the country’s second-largest manufacturer of solar modules, and it aims to add production of solar cells in the coming years.

Peter’s article demonstrates how Heliene’s leadership, with co-founder and CEO Martin Pochtaruk at the helm, is driving constant improvement. Replacing one obsolete production line in 2018, for example, allowed the manufacturer to boost production from 50–80 modules per day to 1,300.

A newer line installed in 2022 has the capacity to produce 3,000 modules per day, but Pochtaruk says the company hasn’t reached that level. “We are at 65 to 70% of that now. We should be better, but we’re not there yet,” he says. As for the 2018 line – it’s been shut down and is being replaced by an entirely new line by this fall, at a cost of $7 million.

For Heliene, which requires substantial ongoing investment to remain a market leader, Minnesota has been a great place to do business. From its early days in the state, it has found unwavering support. The facility itself and the willingness of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRR) to help finance production equipment first drew Heliene to Mountain Iron.

When rapid growth meant the company needed more space and might relocate, the late David Tomassoni, a 30-year member of the Minnesota Senate and a tireless promoter of economic development on the Iron Range, stepped in. According to Pochtaruk, the senator told him, “You’re not going anywhere. However big the building has to be, we’ll get you the money.”

A combination of funds from the US Department of Energy via the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, St. Louis County and the IRRR led to $12 million in support for a 68,000-square foot addition to the existing plant.

As Heliene has grown, it has also tapped into the expertise of Enterprise Minnesota to ensure the quality of its products. “Our clients have third-party engineering companies coming in to do audits. We have inspections all the time, and the product we make is guaranteed to work for 25 years. So, the need for it to be absolutely perfect is mandatory,” Pochtaruk says.

With those demands in mind, Keith Gadacz, a business growth consultant for Enterprise Minnesota, worked with Heliene in December 2021 to train additional staff on internal ISO control management systems. “Their growth means they need to continually add new talent to their audit pool,” Gadacz says, noting that a key element of an ISO auditor is being able to see and recommend improvement ideas.

Gadacz says training people to see improvement opportunities is critical and that a company like Heliene needs good systems to audit against and good leaders to guide people. Heliene has those outstanding leaders in Joanne Bath, who manages the Mountain Iron plant, and Jenny Wang, who heads the quality team. “Those two just ooze leadership,” he says.

With solid leaders like Pochtaruk, Bath and Wang, combined with what we like to call a healthy manufacturing ecosystem, Heliene is poised for unlimited future growth. You might say the company has found its place in the sun.

Read more about Heliene here.

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