American Roll Form is honored to be the cover article on the most recent issue of Green Manufacturer Magazine. The article highlights ARF's role in the Solar Industry's supply-chain.
The article can also be seen at: http://www.greenmanufacturer.net/article/facilities/thinking-outside-the-chip-for-solar-market-opportunities
Thinking outside the chip for solar market opportunities
Roll forming manufacturer makes hay with mounting systems
By Lou Kren
April 11, 2011
American Roll Form sought a market opportunity in the growing solar energy segment manufacturing solar panel mounting devices. It now comprises 15% of its business activity.
Make hay while the sun shines, the adage goes. Just east of Cleveland, in the town of Painesville, the sun is shining on American Roll Form—and it is making hay. It’s not the northeast Ohio weather that brings the rays; it’s the strategic vision that’s allowed American Roll Form to win business as a major supplier of solar panel-mounting systems. Within two years the company has gone from no solar-market business to the creation of its solar division that represents 15 percent of sales—the company’s largest market segment.
How? By applying its engineering expertise to improve the manufacturability of solar panel mounts, the manufacturer has found success while helping the solar power market grow, bringing this alternative energy source mainstream.
Engineering Key to Solar Growth
With an inventory of roll forming machines, turret punch presses, press brakes, and stamping presses, as well as capabilities in robotic welding, powder coating, hot-dip galvanizing, and assembly and packaging in its 160,000 square feet across two local plants, the company can produce, try out, and prototype nearly anything its engineers can design.
In fact, according to Rob Touzalin, president of the 51-year-old, 125-employee-strong company, it is that engineering capability that makes solar energy a market that the company can tap.
American Roll Form doesn’t produce mounting systems under its own name, Touzalin said. “Providers of panel systems come to us with their designs. Our customers know all about solar panels and they have topnotch engineers. What we do is show them designs that make manufacturing sense—and that is where we shine.” For example, one design called for aluminum extrusions, but ARF redesigned it with steel roll formed beams, which significantly cut costs.
“A big thing with these mounting systems is the wind load—very important,” he continued. “These panels have to stay steady at wind speeds from 90 to 120 miles per hour. So we help these companies by suggesting redesigns or by designing stampings that maximize wind load—holding down panels while holding down costs.”
One customer wants to place solar panel systems on water. So ARF is working with that customer to design mounting systems to achieve that, and in an economical way, according to Touzalin.
After customers provide the initial plans, the company’s engineers attack the design, perhaps re-engineering to allow use of lighter-weight, higher-strength steel that results in less material costs, or changing hole tolerances and locations to simplify manufacturability. From there the company fabricates, assembles, and kits whatever is required.
“Most of the solarenergypanel providers we work with do not have internal engineering resources for developing the mounting systems,” said Randy Myers, director of engineering, who is in charge of three in-house engineers and two tooling engineers. “So we offer solutions regarding uploads and shear loads and provide advice on the right materials, shapes, and assemblies to meet and exceed requirements. We work with a P.E. to provide those services.”
One piece of advice centers on assemblies using galvanized sections. “Some customers may want to spot weld. But spot welding mars galvanized surfaces and damages material integrity,” Myers explained. “So we offer alternatives such as toggle locking in certain cases.”
Following the Sun Into the Solar Market
For American Roll Form, the foray into solar began about two-and-a-half years ago, according to Touzalin.
“As construction and material handling markets were fading, we were looking for a new, growing market,” he recalls. “We noticed that solar panels had to sit on steel or aluminum structures. We saw that as a new market possibility.”
By conducting research at solar industry tradeshows and seminars and reading trade publications, Touzalin and the American Roll Form team found that solar energy was taking Ontario, Canada, by storm. Ontario is the second-largest North American solar energy market, by investment (California is first). Ontario pushes new energy through various government programs and initiatives. Chief among them is Canada’s Green Energy and Green Economy Act of 2009, which provides incentives to suppliers and users of renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal power in Canada (see Ontario Government Prods New Gold Rush Era sidebar).
American Roll Form possessed the technology and know-how to design and produce solar panel-mounting systems. All well and good, but there was one problem.
“Canadian law placed domestic-content requirements on solar power systems,” said Touzalin. For example, domestic content in Ontario solar power systems must equal or exceed 60 percent. “So we set out to form a partnership with a Canadian company to work together in penetrating this market.”
Enter Toronto-based manufacturer Samco Solar, a division of Samco Machinery Ltd.
Canadian Partner Eases Solar Market Entry
Through a partnership with Samco Solar, American Roll Form works closely with panel system manufacturers to design and build ground and rooftop panel mounts that increasingly dot the Ontario landscape.
The partnership, formed a year and a half ago, was eased by the fact that both Samco Solar and American Roll Form had similar equipment, tooling, and manufacturing processes. Where needed, the two companies matched up their capabilities and machinery, and the partnership was ready to pay dividends.
“American Roll Form purchased equipment from our parent company that matches up with ours and we were able to begin working together,” said David Pichard, vice president of business development for Samco Solar.
Many of American Roll Form’s 175 die sets can fit directly into Samco’s lines, ensuring smooth cross-border production.
“Now, mounting system parts, components, and assemblies can be produced on either side of the border,” Touzalin said.
Bright Future in Solar Power
Touzalin sees American Roll Form’s solar division continuing to grow in coming years, not only in Canada but throughout the U.S., as installation and operation costs decrease. The company has been supplying mounting systems not only north of the border but in states such as Nevada, California, and Minnesota.
As solar power makes inroads, expect American Roll Form to build on its foundation of providing foundations.