A contract manufacturer goes first-party after years of producing solar racking for others

A contract manufacturer is hired to produce the products that other companies design. BCI Engineering, a steel equipment contract manufacturer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has spent the past 13 years manufacturing many solar racking and mounting solutions placed in the ground around the world — worth more than 20 GW, primarily for original equipment manufacturers of trackers.

Credit: BCI Engineering

With prolific output on the manufacturing side, BCI decided it was time to design and manufacture a sun stretch product in-house. The group unveiled a fixed tilt solution called Completely freaked out in April 2021.

“BCI has essentially always been a contract manufacturer. But we are also a team of engineers and product developers,” said Matt Carroll, CEO of BCI Engineering. “Fixed-tilt presented the right opportunity. There is plenty of room for innovation and new challenges from larger modules and difficult project locations. Not much has been invested in fixed-tilt.”

Fixed tilt racking is not the leading structure choice for large scale solar developers in terms of power. With hundreds of acres to cover with solar panels, single-axis trackers can generate more power from the same footprint as a fixed tilt project.

However, the solar tracking market is being cornered by companies like Nextracker and Array Technologies, where fixed-tilt racking has more players in the game. With that in mind, BCI decided that the more diversified fixed canting market was the way to go for its first self-developed scaffolding.

Full Tilt going into the fixed-tilt market

BCI was founded in 2006 by co-founders Matt Carroll and Tim Brantingham. Initially, the company produced heavy equipment for railways, mining and other steel-related industries. Two years later, BCI began manufacturing solar racks for other companies. Since that introduction to solar rack manufacturing, Carroll said 95% of what BCI currently produces is related to renewable energy sources.

Full Tilt is the culmination of BCI’s experience producing racking structures from other companies. Designed to encourage faster installation by being lightweight, the system consists of six components, but it’s still tested to withstand wind speeds in excess of 100 mph.

Credit: BCI Engineering

With the market shifting to larger-sized modules, BCI wanted to produce fixed-tilt racks to accommodate these panel sizes. To do this, Full Tilt has a panel rail that the company dubbed “Longhorn,” which has notches in the rail’s flange that allow modules to self-align when fed into the track.

“The flanges engage the inner surface of the module frame itself,” said Chris Bartley, VP Business Development at BCI Engineering. “It slides right into place, so you don’t have to worry about micro-adjusting the module to align the bolt holes. You slide it up, it falls into place and it’s in.”

Rotate the panel rails on Full Tilt. Installers can load modules onto the rack when it is flat, and once in place position the rails at the correct angle.

Panels are secured in two-in-portrait orientation using cinch clips, threaded fasteners or carriage bolts. That pivoting panel rail also means installers or technicians can adjust the modules to access their undersides. In addition, each Full Tilt system is sized on a project-by-project basis and manufactured for module customization.

“We try to make our designs as universal as possible, but we realize we can’t because the modules are everywhere these days,” said Carroll. “Full Tilt is designed to easily adapt to any module size.”

BCI is trying to fill a gap in solar development, especially in smaller countries, where flat, open land is becoming scarcer. Just by having fewer to no moving parts, the logistics of installing a fixed tilt scaffolding on undulating topographies is easier than single-axis trackers.

The company’s geotechnical confidence in those environments comes from another solar product it helps manufacture. BCI has a hand in creating other solar technologies, founding company co-founder Solar Pile International and energy storage offer with Invinity energy systems. Through the former company, BCI gained a foothold in geotechnical guidance.

Solar Pile International produces several ground-mount options, including a standard I-beam, but the Solar X Wing Pile and Solar X Blade Pile are designed to embed at shallower depths in loose, sandy or rocky soils, reactive clay and frost -heave zones . Combine that with Full Tilt and solar power can be installed in places where it otherwise wouldn’t have been.
“We’re going to leverage that as part of this ecosystem to bring those two things together and take some of the risk out of EPCs and even the developers,” Carroll said.

Exploiting its global footprint

BCI has 16 offices and manufacturing hubs around the world in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Italy, Australia, India, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China. With that global presence, the company has experience in the logistics of manufacturing and shipping heavy steel equipment in an international supply chain. It also provides product testing for a variety of environmental conditions.

“Those skills and that service were really needed in the racking space, especially with these racking start-ups where they knew solar, they had really good ideas on the product side, but they definitely needed that extra support on the production side of the supply chain. said Bartley.

Given the company’s output leading up to creating Full Tilt, Carroll said BCI is comfortable producing shelving structures in the hundreds of megawatts range and hopes Full Tilt will eventually reach that scale.

“By the way, we are still a contract manufacturer. It’s still our bread and butter and will continue to be an important part of what we do, but we’ve always approached it from a more holistic perspective. We help companies to bring their business to the market. We’re not just manufacturers,” he said.

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