3M expands a photovoltaic film plant to power up its solar sales

3M Co. has completed the expansion of a solar-film manufacturing plant in Missouri, a move aimed at growing its presence in the highly competitive solar panel segment.

The Maplewood-based conglomerate said the project will lower costs for U.S. commercial panel companies at a time when there is increased competition from foreign rivals. 3M said its new photovoltaic film is thin and lightweight, which cuts manufacturing time and replaces the need for the heavy glass used in rooftop solar modules. The film is also waterproof.

“With our new production equipment and continued product innovation, 3M is well positioned to not only increase the performance of our Ultra Barrier Solar Film, but also significantly drive down the costs,” Derek DeScioli, 3M’s global business development manager for renewable energy, said Monday.

In addition to the Columbia, Mo., plant, 3M makes solar materials in Cottage Grove and Greenville, S.C.

Expansion costs were not disclosed, and the company declined to say how many workers the Columbia plant employs. However, the company said it has been recruiting and hiring workers at the plant, which also makes electronic and health care products.

Spokeswoman Jackie Berry said 3M is viewing its new product as a growth opportunity. 3M’s Missouri plant expansion is significant because it’s based in the United States and not in Asia, which has been the location of several previous investments, 3M said.

Company officials said earlier in the year that 3M’s new global plan calls for expanding its sustainable energy footprint.

During the annual meeting in May, 3M’s new CEO, Inge Thulin, said the conglomerate would focus on “emerging megatrends” such as health care, the booming oil and gas industries and green products that foster sustainable, clean technology and clean water.

3M, with $29.6 billion in annual sales, already makes an assortment of products used in manufacturing, including solar panels, windmills, gas pipe coatings, aerospace supplies, and laptop and TV screen films.