Engineering challenges come in all shapes and sizes. When
an innovative maker of solar energy products needed a key component for their
high-tech thin film-based collectors, they turned to Tinnerman.
Neither the product nor the process was typical, recalls
Todd Hemingway, Tinnerman's vice president of advanced engineering. For one
thing, the solar company was so concerned about protecting their proprietary
breakthroughs that they initially refused to disclose anything about the
purpose and working environment of the component they sought - all they would
supply was a rough drawing and some dimensions.
"We made several attempts to fulfill their needs but we finally realized
we were just shooting in the dark," recalls Hemingway. Finally, Tinnerman convinced the customer to
let them work under stringent non-disclosure agreements - and that's when the
fun really began.
"They had strict cost goals but they also needed
ruggedness, very long service life and tight tolerances across a piece that
measured almost two meters in length," says Hemingway. The piece, termed an "e-rail" by the
companies, because it not only provides physical strength and rigidity to the
whole solar array but also encloses the wiring, was an opportunity for Tinnerman engineers to
produce something that would be exceptionally manufacturable while embodying
high-function and high tech every step of the way.
"We saw that this
company had an incredible vision - a solar energy product that could be
world-changing, but they were not as familiar with manufacturing challenges or
manufacturing techniques as Tinnerman so we were able to be not only a vendor
but a trusted advisor," says Hemingway.
"They had achieved a
fantastic breakthrough but they didn't have our experience with manufacturing.
We helped them take their ideas from the stratosphere into the real world,"
says Hemingway, creating a cutting edge product in the process.
But there were fresh
challenges for Tinnerman as well. Traditionally, the company supplied its
customers with specialized fasteners that were usually relatively small. So the
e-rail represented an opportunity to apply design techniques in a new way and
to configure manufacturing capabilities differently.
The end result, which is
made from 300 series stainless steel, also had to have 40 impressions placed on
its surface with a high degree of accuracy. After being coated with an
insulating polymer, these impressions would be used to engage and hold the
collector tubes - the heart of the system. In addition, the e-rail would need
to include copper wire, to carry electricity from the tubes.
vendor was going to be responsible for adding the wiring but we found we could
crimp the conductors in place as part of our manufacturing process, simplifying
the product, reducing handling, and cutting costs," explains Hemingway.
Hemingway says there
were trials and errors over the 18 month joint development process but "now the
parts are going through the process routinely and rapidly."
"When we started we were
blue-skying - neither the customer nor our team had anything to base this on
because it is a completely new technology," says Hemingway. "We educated ourselves about their needs and
brought them a creative approach to providing the solution," says. Furthermore,
the price per piece has fallen by a significant amount over the course of the
"The customer told us
there were other competing solutions under consideration, including Asian
sources traditionally seen as low-cost, but we were the only ones who were able
to accomplish what we said we would do," he adds.