Streamlining Renewable Energy Manufacturing
by Del Williams
Although the global growth of the renewable energy sector is undeniable, much of that growth has been driven by energy support policies at the national, state, or local level. When these policies are inconsistent or withdrawn, or falling fossil fuel prices make renewable energy less competitive, renewable energy companies can face slack demand that disrupts their business model.
One challenge for renewable energy innovators, particularly start-ups, is that they often have limited resources and manufacturing expertise. Ensuring sustainable growth in the renewable energy sector requires reliable manufacturing capability to drive down costs and ramp up parts production to mass scale, as well as consultative manufacturing partners that can help reduce overhead and improve design and manufacturability.
“As a renewable energy start-up, I don’t have the time, capital, or expertise to build sufficient manufacturing capability from scratch,” says Paul Eisenhuth, president of CEWA Technologies, a Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, developer of concentrating solar power dishes and solar tracking technology.
Instead of manufacturing in-house or working with layers of vendors, Eisenhuth chose to work from the start of product development with Summit Steel & Manufacturing, a Reading, Pennsylvania, metal component fabricator. The company offers a full range of services from 2D and 3D laser cutting, computer numerical control (aka CNC) turning/milling, Swiss machining, and centerless grinding/polishing to bending/forming, powder coating, robotic and manual welding, and assembly.
“In talking with Summit engineers, we determined there’s a better, cheaper, faster way to build our highly polished aluminum dish, the heart of our unit,” says Eisenhuth. “We’d planned to press the dish using a hydroforming process from a single aluminum sheet, which has high start-up costs.”
Instead, Summit developed a forming jig process to weld aluminum dish pieces together that costs one-tenth the hydroforming at low quantities, saves more at higher volumes, and is at least as fast. And when CEWA Technologies needed a prototype part to keep their test development program running—with critical funding at stake—their full-service metal component fabrication provider rushed them the needed part.
“Our whole testing program was at a standstill until a prototype piece was made for one of our supports,” says Eisenhuth. “I expected it to take two weeks, but they helped us design and draw it and got it to me in three days. We successfully continued our test program and saved our funding.”
Both their large and small solar concentrator dishes are designed to meet the power, hot water, HVAC, and process heating needs of industrial, institutional, commercial, and agricultural customers. Eisenhuth says that partnering with a full-service metal component fabrication provider has enabled his company to produce solar concentrator dishes at a price competitive with fossil fuels without government subsidies.
“We cut about six months off our development timeline working with Summit, going from prototype to finished, commercial product,” says Eisenhuth. “Working with them saved us at least $500,000 in development costs with an accelerated product development timeline and improved approaches to fabrication.”
According to Eisenhuth, it makes sense for renewable energy original equipment manufacturers, particularly start-ups, to outsource their parts manufacturing to a reliable full-service partner. This strategy can help improve their design and manufacturability as well as allow them to flexibly meet demand, reduce unit price, and enable quick production ramp-up.
“We’re saving about 15% to 20% by eliminating unnecessary layers of subcontractor profit, shipping, packaging, accounting, and follow up,” he estimates. “We’re also saving at least four to six weeks of delivery time.”
Eisenhuth says CEWA Technologies further saves by working with a large metal fabrication company like Summit Steel that can purchase raw materials at mill-direct pricing. For Eisenhuth, there is one additional competitive advantage to working with a one-stop shop—simplifying CEWA Technologies’ quality auditing.
“Instead of having to track and audit several vendor subcontractors, I can monitor one full-service vendor,”says Eisenhuth.“That gives me one point of contact to quickly resolve any potential quality, production, or delivery issues without subcontractors pointing the finger of blame at someone else.”
According to Eisenhuth, sound business models will finally catapult the renewable industry past sporadic fits and starts. Successful renewable energy innovators are likely to be those that focus on their core competencies of system design and marketing, while partnering with reliable full-service parts manufacturers to lower unit cost and ramp up production.
For more information, contact Summit Steel, 610.921.1119, summitsteelinc.com.
Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, California.