Partnership with Contract Manufacturer Helps Startup Bring Rooftop Solar System to Market
A SolarClover™ test unit mounted directly on an HVAC unit. The triangular racks and micro inverters enable the installation to be completed in only minutes. The solar energy produced directly offsets the power used by the HVAC unit during peak consumption periods when the electricity is needed most. Encore Industries fabricated the snap-in brackets (not visible) on the underside of the panel.
Photo courtesy of Armageddon Energy Inc., Menlo Park, California
Compact SolarClover™ is easy to install, lightweight, and designed for the average consumer
Close cooperation and innovation by two Silicon Valley companies—one a startup; the other, a contract manufacturer—has made new product development a reality for a residential rooftop solar system with a unique design. Armageddon Energy, Inc., of Menlo Park, Calif., and Encore Industries, of San Jose, Calif., partnered to create a mounting system for the new hexagonal-shaped solar energy system known as the SolarClover™.
Encore Industries, a global supplier of custom fabricated enclosures, frames, chassis, and assemblies, is a sheet metal fabrication and assembly company that provides contract manufacturing services to numerous high-tech product manufacturers in the heart of Silicon Valley. Armageddon Energy, Inc., is a startup OEM with suppliers all over the country poised to provide the company with solar cells, back panels, trim, mounting frames, and Teflon photovoltaic film.
Mark Goldman, CEO and founder of Armageddon Energy, had been thinking about his unique form of solar energy for a long time before embarking on the new product development. He initially brought in a group of highly skilled product designers, most of them affiliated with the renowned design firm IDEO in Palo Alto, Calif., to brainstorm ideas for the new product. "IDEO stands for things like ideation, the phase at the beginning of product design, where you brainstorm and try to find solutions to difficult problems," Goldman recalled. "You try to come up with products that are elegant, yet durable, aesthetic, and very appealing to consumers, whether it's a better tooth brush or a solar panel. Sometimes, IDEO works on technical problems for any kind of product, but they have more of a consumer product mentality.
"We needed a product that would help solar become a true consumer product," Goldman continued. "It would have an affordable price point, a clear value proposition, and be easy to install, last a long time, and look nice. Any consumer product has to be 'bite size,' accessible, and attractive—even an expensive car. So the sales process is relatively simple, the installation process is simple, and, hopefully, building permits will be simpler. How do we make solar appealing to consumers? I had a bunch of very specific ideas about how to get there, but I didn't have a product design."
The assembled design group brainstormed the project and came up with some very interesting designs. Among the specific areas addressed: making sure that parts and components were easy to handle, easy to assemble, and could easily fit into a truck and be taken on to a roof. "We took the leading concept and, with the help of a couple of these very talented folks, we pursued three of the designs," Goldman affirmed. "We then picked one concept and developed it, and took it all the way through UL testing. It has been four years of design and development, fundraising, and market validation. Now, we're trying to figure out how to sell it with limited resources."
Engineering the Mounting System
When Armageddon Energy's ideas were in their infancy, Encore Industries, a contract manufacturer, was able to help Armageddon with new product introduction (NPI) of the Solar Clover rack mount system. Much of the design was already in place, and the Solar Clover system was "working beautifully," according to Mark Hacker, president and CEO of Encore Industries. The case for DFM (design for manufacturing) was made to convert the existing design to a more efficient assembly by eliminating hardware. Encore proposed an extruded aluminum profile option that essentially eliminated the need for hardware.
"As I recall, they came to us with a fairly generic mounting system," Hacker said in an interview. "At that point, we decided to help them come up with a fastening system for their extrusion, and a relatively simple mounting system to make it easy to assemble for the consumer. Later, we made a suggestion about changing the extrusion and adding a profile to it, making it more of a snap fit with a set screw, where you wouldn't require additional sheet metal parts in the corners. You could make the extrusion an interlocking extrusion, and then use just one piece of hardware for each corner. At that point, they were already getting involved in UL testing, so it was determined that this particular change would come later."
The origin of the Solar Clover idea came to Mark Goldman 20 years ago, when he was working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the '90s, nationwide energy concerns led to the EPA's launch of the Energy Star program to promote energy efficiency in the operation of a wide range of consumer products and appliances. "Energy Star was a hugely successful program—probably, by far, the most successful energy-efficiency program anywhere," said Goldman. "We did work on technology innovations, so I was thinking about some of these issues and worldwide applications out here on the West Coast, at the intersection of high-tech and renewable energy."
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Solar Clover system is an innovative application of a solar rooftop system for private home use. "It is a very unique system; that's definitely what we were shooting for," Goldman acknowledges. "Other people will make claims about ease of installation, modularity, or functionality, to appeal to mainstream consumers. But I don't think there are many that meet those promises. In concrete terms, the look and feel of the system, the shape and aesthetics of a hexagonal panel and triangular wrap makes it distinctive, and it also makes it easier to put on a roof. Also, the lightweight panel that we developed, which is half the weight of a standard glass panel, can still operate on a standard solar production line."
Although low wattage, the three-panel Solar Clover system will generate 1kw or 2 kW AC, enough to handle a few appliances. "Our system is more of a peak shaving system," said Goldman. "We're not trying to offset 100 percent of your load, like a big, standard-sized system would. It's more about grid optimization and a higher economic payback. You can always add more panels to the system if you want to. I think this is why those guys said this is the most fundable system—because it is so differentiated in the marketplace."
Armageddon's Solar Clover system utilizes aluminum extrusion modifications, machined hardware, and kit fulfillment, resulting in a consumer product that's easy to assemble. Encore Industries handled the fabrication work for Armageddon's solar panel frame with a variety of manufacturing methods. "The design was simple enough and required only minor tweaking," said Hacker. "Brackets were laser cut and the assembly was slightly modified to adapt to the bracket design. Of course, all of the design and manufacturing was done on a 'fast track' because they wanted to get a prototype into UL [testing] right away."
As the project advanced, Armageddon had to overcome numerous product development challenges, namely, balancing the need for R&D and testing with limited funds. According to Goldman, the twin development channels of developing a rack that would meet the needs for rapid assembly and installation, and a panel that would last a long time, were the hardest.
"We had to make a lot of tough decisions about what we're going to spend our time and money on," Goldman remembers. "The biggest development challenges were developing a light weight panel and figuring out a way to make it last 20 to 25 years in an outdoor environment. We were using proven technology—solar cells and Teflon films—in a package that no one had used before. So designing a durable panel was one challenge; designing a mounting rack without endless resources to make prototypes and put it on people's roofs was another challenge."
Easy Installation—for Skilled Professionals
A Solar Clover™ lightweight solar panel being installed on a rack. The panel uses polymer films from DuPont and is half the weight of a standard glass panel. Encore Industries fabricated the snap-in brackets (not visible) on the underside of the panel.
Photo courtesy of Armageddon Energy Inc., Menlo Park, California
Goldman said that although Clover is designed for easy installation, it's not truly do-it-yourself, so it's important to find a roofer, electrician, or installation company to install the system. "Realistically, I don't think most average people want to be on the roof, nor should they be on the roof," Goldman acknowledges. "It could be dangerous if the average person doesn't have professional installation skills. The whole idea is to make this a plug-and-play system, a complete system with micro inverters and triangular racks. It's almost an IKEA type of system. With very little training, professional installers would be able to put it together with the installation manual at a reasonable cost."
Encore's strategy was to build a frame system that required minimal hardware and reduced assembly time, heeding considerations for cost drivers while improving form, fit, and function. The Encore team has successfully participated in numerous new product introductions, some of which have helped shape the industries the company serves, including solar, telecom, commercial, medical, and network appliances.
In this case, how to eliminate moving parts was one of the engineering tasks that Encore Industries had to tackle. A decision was made initially to design an aluminum profile that would require less hardware, and to eliminate the sheet metal brackets that interlock the sheet metal extrusions.
"We decided to use a profile, as opposed to a rectangular tube with a sheet metal component at the end of the tube," said Hacker. "We would eliminate the sheet metal component, change the aluminum tube to an extrusion profile, and then use a set screw to fasten it down. So if you design the profiles in such a way as to interlock with one another, you can minimize the use of hardware. What we tried to do was to design an interlocking system."
One of the reasons why Armageddon Energy wasn't able to pursue the profile change on the extrusion was that the company wanted to get into UL testing as soon as possible. "Their pre-production unit had to be UL approved prior to being able to market it to the customer, which might be a Lowe's or a Home Depot," said Hacker. "Even though they didn't pursue the interlocking extrusion profile that we initially designed in the NPI process, it was a viable enough solution for UL."
Goldman said that Encore was able to help Armageddon solve all of the company's engineering challenges for the mounting system. "Encore was really useful during our development cycle to help us make sure we were on track, that what we were designing would be able to be manufactured cheaply and to scale," he explained. "They were a resource for us to kind of check in with during the development process, and to make sure we weren't missing anything obvious or spending a lot of time heading down a wrong avenue. And they helped us with a final design review so that it would be as inexpensive as possible. 'Here are some other things we can do,' they told us, 'but not until your volumes are higher.'"
Encore Industries has worked extensively for companies in the green energy sector, specifically for solar installations. The company has constructed industrial steel, ground mount systems and upright and vertical structures for car port structures at public high schools. One example was created for the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose parking structures have become viable foundations for solar structures built by solar providers.
"The Los Angeles Unified School District was converting a number of parking lots to carport structures with solar panels," said Hacker. "We put the upright beams and horizontals in place to mount the solar panels to the carport structure. We did a number of schools in Los Angeles, as well as in San Jose. There were a lot of challenges with these very large structures, and quite a bit of steel. As far as innovation, it's really a question of speed and being able to provide a low cost solution for a ground mount system."
Armageddon found Encore while searching for fabrication companies that could not only handle the mounting system efficiently, but also help them with product development and engineering. Goldman talked to a number of companies, including one very good sales person at Encore. "Mark Hacker has always been a big help to me personally," Goldman affirms. "I met him early on in the process. Encore was gung-ho on solar, and already had a number of solar clients. They looked at our product and said, 'That thing could really take off.'"
Engineers Helped with Product Development
Armageddon made a decision early in the design and engineering process to get involved with Encore's engineers. "They were very responsive and very professional," said Goldman, "and they had their act together when it came to dealing with all the logistics of part numbers, pricing, and forecasting. They weren't dismayed when we had delays in testing or funding, or shortfalls that slowed everything down. Part of it is also the culture of Silicon Valley. They're here and they're flexible, responsible, and they do good work. And they came in at the price point that made sense. They've been a very good partner."
Being based in Northern California's Silicon Valley has been fortuitous for a small startup company with limited funding, especially during the product development and design stages. "Everybody in Silicon Valley likes a cool startup and new ideas," said Goldman. "The advantage for us being in Silicon Valley is that there is a huge pool of extremely talented industrial designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and software developers that we can reach out to for advice. There are many solar companies here, and a lot of manufacturers, like Encore, who work on solar systems and other high-tech projects. So we've relied on this deep pool of talent in multiple related disciplines. Culturally and practically, these guys are used to working with small companies."
Goldman said his rooftop solar system is primarily targeting basic consumers. It's a system that's meant to be small and compact, easy to install, and have a stylish look.
"The value proposition is for people who want solar, but don't want to cover their whole roof with it," he said. "For now at least, it's all made in America. Du Pont makes our PV films in Ohio; Suniva makes our solar cells in Georgia. Suniva was going to set up manufacturing in China, but pulled back and decided to do it in Georgia. The back panels we use come from Pennsylvania, and the trim we use comes from California. The final assembly is done at the same physical location as the solar panels.
"It's not just being good Americans, although that counts for sure, but I think the point is that it makes sense to manufacture these parts closer to home," he continued. "And if you look at contract manufacturing, there are all kinds of good reasons to put your production in U.S. regions to avoid tariffs, faster response to the market, and cost factors."
Armageddon Energy is now at a critical juncture with its innovative rooftop solar system. Goldman said that the company has finished developing the Solar Clover hardware, the siting tool for installers, and the monitoring dashboard. It has three UL/ETL certifications on the panels, rack, and AC system. "Everything is commercial, and we've sold a handful of systems," Goldman said. "We would be out there with a larger marketing push, but we're very cash constrained, so we can't do that just yet. So, with product, but without a big marketing budget, we're focused mostly on recruiting partners to help us sell and distribute our systems, and we're working on larger sales in some specialty markets that would help get us off the ground."
Armageddon hopes to achieve full production for its solar system very soon. "Full production for the company is about 5 MW, or several thousand systems sold," Goldman summarizes. "If we can secure a large order from a customer who needs an easy-to-install system or lightweight panel, then we can jump-start consumer sales. If all goes well, we'll approach that level of production next year."
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