Global U.S. Manufacturer Creates Supply Chain with Diverse Processes

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U.S. Manufacturing

An emphasis on green technology brings manufacturer into the wind, solar tech, and energy storage areas

Being part of a multifaceted, worldwide manufacturing corporation has given Powin Corporation (www.powin.com) the ability to control its own vertical supply chain for its clients in a very diverse way. Most prominent is Powin's U.S.-based Quality Bending & Fabrication (QBF) division, an engineering, fabrication, and assembly powerhouse. Quality Bending & Fabrication has manufactured parts for many high-end American OEMs over the years, such as Boeing, Freightliner, Hewlett-Packard, and Daimler-Chrysler. Also in Tualatin, Oregon, near Portland, is Powin Energy (www.powinenergy.com), a maker of specialized lighting and custom-built alternative energy systems. Added to the equation are eight plants in China and two in Taiwan.

Quality Bending & Fabrication (www.qbfinc.com) started out as another company in the 1960s supporting Freightliner, a maker of large tractor-trailer trucks in Portland, Oregon. The company has continued to grow this business over the years in other areas, but it has always had a very strong foothold in the automotive and heavy truck industries. A number of years ago, QBF was also making aluminum landing gear parts, but when the large aircraft company shifted to using titanium, QBF found that it didn't fit their business model.

"When Daimler sold off Chrysler, they changed Freightliner to a brand they now call Daimler Trucks North America," says Jonathan Hillman, the national sales and marketing manager at Powin Corporation. "The plant here in Portland is called the Western Star Truck Plant. We ship parts to a number of facilities around the country, and Mexico, for this company. We have a plant in Saltio, Mexico, which also supports the Mexican auto industry. We have an engineering group that sits over at our QBF facility, which is about a mile away from our headquarters facility. Our engineers can help customers with unique designs that they might need help with. And we can create manufacturing solutions for a client's designs. So we offer design and engineering support."

Company's Energy Division Offers Unique Energy Storage Solutions

The Powin Energy division is operated out of the main Powin Corp. plant. Quality Bending & Fabrication supports Powin Energy with a number of projects. Powin Energy is also overseas, since the company is involved in a joint venture with a company called Real Force. "Portland, Oregon is not really an industrial city these days; it's more of a green, high-tech, computer city," according to Hillman. "People now call Seattle and Portland the Silicon Forest. We've had a lot of green companies that have spun off of each other in Portland. Tektronix has spun off about 60 other companies in this area, and Boeing is still very busy in Portland and Seattle."

When the company first started getting into the renewable energy side of the business, QBF took a local company that manufactured wind turbines and started engineering the product from beginning to end. We helped them improve some of the designs and improve some of the parts, and we took over all of their supply and logistics areas," Hillman recalls. "We were also able to source some of the parts to our plants overseas. I think that we made it more cost effective for them to grow their business. Within a year of bringing this business inside, it's now a public company."

Powin also maintains a 71,000 sq. ft. warehousing facility at its headquarters, and is in the process of building a second facility at its headquarters site. Hillman says that Powin also partners with a manufacturing company in Tualatin called Co-Source USA, of which its CEO owns 50%. "It's a job shop where we make bunks for 18 wheel trucks, cable systems, parts for satellite systems, military work, contract assembly, and electronic parts," Hillman comments. "We can also feed off of our manufacturing facilities in China, if necessary."

The Powin Energy division manufactures and distributes energy-efficient lighting products that include LED, T8 fluorescent, and T5HO fluorescent systems, as well as complete energy storage solutions and renewable energy products that include wind and solar energy components. "We are doing some very high-end software programing that's proprietary," Hillman explains when referring to Powin Energy. "We keep all of the proprietary projects here in the states. Even though we have ownership of our factories overseas, we like to keep the proprietary work here."

Hillman remarks that renewable energy is not always the most cost effective application, but he says it's getting more cost effective as time goes on. "Because we've had experience in the wind energy side of the business, for us to support that side of the business with our capabilities and our battery systems is an easy gap to fill," states Hillman. "We have a very smart team of personnel that have been able to develop unique products, such as our Life PO4 battery technology. And we couple that with our proprietary software system, which can be controlled remotely via the web."

Scalability of Storage System makes it Ideal for a Diverse Market

Creating solutions for wind and solar technology would seem to be a given for a company with Powin's technology capabilities. The company's national sales manager believes that alternative energy is important on a number of levels. "It's important for utilities to help reduce their costs per kilowatt-hour (kWh)," Hillman explained. "It's also important because we have the only scalable [storage] system at this time; none of them works like our system does. It can, in essence, support wind turbine or solar farms to store the energy, allowing it to be used at an alternative time. Right now, what you have are a number of wind turbines out there that are producing energy that can't be stored. So what we've done is looked at areas where there is a need for a storage solution."

Indeed, the scalability of this technology is what makes it attractive to so many different industries for a variety of applications. It's so scalable it can be used for residential, commercial, or industrial applications.

"We use the system for the automotive industry, electric bicycles, and utility grid storage," says Hillman. "It's clean energy, so it can be used as an uninterruptible power supply for computer and communication systems. So if someone needs to set up some sort of command center, you don't need to worry about using gasoline-powered generators, or your uses or limitations. It can be used for electric vehicles, satellite phones, emergency lighting, mobile hospitals, and temporary shelters."

Li-Ion Batteries are Heart of Storage System

Lithium-ion batteries are the primary component of the Powin energy storage system. Since all the systems are custom-made with each particular customer in mind, Powin's engineers design the battery components, the management system, and the system software. "We take a very economical approach to the way we design our products," says Hillman. "The lithium-ion system continues to go down in cost, as lead continues to go up. Lithium is also a safer, greener, fully-rechargeable, and a more environmentally-friendly battery. The lifecycle itself is very long; it lasts up to ten years. So you can get three times the usage out of the product, compared to lead-acid or other batteries that are out there."

Powin's energy storage system is scalable and flexible, so it can be configured in a variety of ways, shapes, and sizes. "You can build the system in a number of ways," says Hillman. "It depends on the product that you have. For example, if you're using a battery that's set up for 24 watt usage, you set them up in packs. Each pack has a certain level of output. So you can basically build and scale it to the customer's needs. If you're looking at our energy storage solution for wind turbine farms or a residential solar system, each battery pack is about 2.5 kilowatts worth of energy storage."

The controllers and inverters are separate, but part of the same package. Powin produces the batteries, and the energy storage devices are manufactured as part of a joint venture with Real Force. "We get the packs from them, and then manufacture according to the needs of the customer," Hillman explains. "So we can engineer a complete package for any given customer."

Since Powin's alternative energy system is scalable, it can be used in homes to store two or three days' worth of energy. In addition, the energy can be manipulated so it is dispersed throughout the home during peak hours through the company's software system.

"As a homeowner, you don't see what the utilities have to spend for the big purchases of kilowatt hours," Hillman points out. "You see it more at the business level, which is why it's a good fit for a company to have some sort of energy storage solution onsite. It's better than just having a backup system, like a generator, when the lighting goes out. Also, if you're paying 3 cents to 6 cents per kWh at 2 a.m., versus 25 cents per hour during peak hours, you can fill up your system during the night and use it during the daytime to support your operations with a big energy savings."

Another promising use for the company's energy storage system is for wind turbine farms, which are often without a way to store generated energy on a mass level. "The utility companies can't control the price that they sell their energy to California, or anywhere else," Hillman continues.  "Because if there is not a shortage, they have to sell it at a certain rate. If they can store that energy, they can control the cost that they are paying for it. Plus, they're not losing all the opportunities to create energy."

The Powin Corporation was founded in 1989 by Joseph Lu, a Chinese-American whose family ties in China were invaluable as he built the company from the ground up. "Using his connections and knowledge of the nuances of Chinese local laws and languages, he arranged to manufacture goods reliably and efficiently for American distributors," according to information on the company's website. "Utilizing approximately 2,100 workers, Powin provides an unparalleled level of manufacturing support to companies all across the United States. Powin has manufactured more than 2,000 products and parts for its customers."

Major Manufacturing Processes Are Available at QBF Division

Powin's QBF division supplies many industries with metal forming, bending, welding, machining, heat treatment, surface treatment, and testing for auto parts, medical equipment, safety products, sports appliances, fuel tanks, and consumer goods. Quality Bending & Fabrication has also been actively involved in green projects requiring a partner for fabrication work. "QBF did a joint venture with a company called Power Energy, where we supplied the batteries," Hillman stated. "QBF supplied the structures for a carport set up with solar panels on the top. The system was designed to create night lighting. In the evenings, the lighting is self-sufficient from our batteries and the solar system."

Quality Bending & Fabrication has also taken on the total build of some residential wind turbines, where the fabrication company has built everything for the wind turbine, except the alternator and the blades.  "Towers still need to be built, which are upwards of 150 feet, and all of the parts that go inside of the wind turbine itself," says Hillman. "We were able to take over the whole process for the customer and we streamlined it, and made it more profitable. We got them to the point where it's now a public company."

The applications that QBF gets involved in are diverse. Automotive and medical are two industries that keep them busy continuously. Powin tries to use its own supply chain, which they say is a cost-effective, vertical supply chain, as much as possible.

"We make a lot of automotive chassis parts, and we can help them improve their designs," Hillman says. "It's not uncommon for their engineers to send us a design, and say ‘Here's what we're looking at. Can you give us a quote and also tell us how to improve the design for manufacturability?' Most of the parts we make for the medical field are cases, boxes, and enclosures for medical devices, and enclosures, cabinets, and shelving for safety products. There's a lot of interaction between our plants overseas and in this country. The way we're set up overseas is, we have plastic, rubber, bending, and electronics capabilities. We have eight plants in China, two in Taiwan, and partner with one in Saltio, Mexico, just south of Monterey. Saltio is known as the Detroit of Mexico. We partner with a lot of American companies that are trying to take advantage of the Mexican NAFTA connection."

One new project that Powin has initiated to launch the company more heavily into solar technology is a new plant that will enable them to manufacture photovoltaic equipment. The ground next to an existing plant in Oregon has already been broken, and the new building is slated to be finished in August 2013. This 40,000 square foot building will be the home to additional corporate offices and production space to support specific renewable manufacturing products, such as solar panels and lithium-ion battery management systems. "We're building a second plant here because of all of the solar issues that are going on, like tariffs and anti-dumping laws that are going to be raised, and probably passed in the near future," says Hillman. "Our plan is to put in a solar manufacturing facility right next to our existing plant. We want to manufacture the solar panels, and then sell them to distributors or wholesalers."

Another recent project, a joint venture with Toyota, has allowed Powin to join forces with the large automaker to add components for electric vehicles.  "It allows us to take vehicles that are partial battery and partial fuel into a fully battery-operated vehicle," says Hillman. "This is for the Toyota Prius, using our battery technology. We can take this technology and go to any automotive manufacturer to help them do the same thing. We inherited this technology, but we don't push it too much because we see bigger opportunities. We're a perfect fit for many companies, including Tesla. I've had a couple of conversations with them, but I'm still waiting to hear from them."

One particular venture has Powin partnering with the Oregon Institute of Technology's Renewable Engineering Program. Powin has donated equipment and resources to the college for the program, which will be used for students to learn and test the company's BESS systems (Battery Energy Storage Systems).  "This offers the college a real hands-on approach that utilizes a real application," says Hillman.  "Additionally, we have brought in several interns to work on our projects side by side with our experts."

In addition, Powin Energy has been invited by the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to help set up industry protocol standards for energy storage solutions. Creating the standards for energy storage has been an ongoing process of research and evaluation for the government agencies and businesses. The standards will be formulated for manufacturing, commercial, and residential use.

"We caught the eye of the U.S. Dept. of Energy, and specifically the PNNL (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)," Hillman affirms proudly. "We're working together with them and the utility companies, which are our potential customers, to define the standards because we're in the forefront of this technology. Nobody else really offers the capabilities and scalable solution that we have. And the fact that we have the intellectual property rights for our software, and the way that our systems generate energy, makes us a perfect fit."

Powin feels that the company has a great deal to offer new and prospective customers in the energy storage, metal fabrication, and other manufacturing areas. "We do have a great opportunity to help our customers," Hillman summarizes. ‘Not only in the products that we offer, but in our capabilities and customer service area. We can save companies money, and they don't have to worry about shipments being late. We try to make it as easy, seamless, and cost effective for them as possible."

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