For Helge Biernath, president and CEO of Sunstall, jobsite efficiency is worthless without supply chain efficiency.
“Too many EPCs are just looking at price and they forget that time is money,” he tells us. “I’ve had conversations asking if I could reduce the price, but how can we do that when overall costs are going up? How about instead we cut down on the installation time from three weeks a MW to two weeks a MW? That will mean something — so we can move on to the next project.”
Sunstall’s philosophy is “manufacturing under the sun.” They apply Japanese lean manufacturing principles like Jidoka (to create flow and eliminate waste), Poke Yoke (to prevent errors and guarantee quality) and, my favorite, Kaizen, which means “change for the better” and implies an effort of continuous improvement.
For contractors like Sunstall, to apply these principles and achieve true efficiency means working in tandem with suppliers who can deliver.
“Want to see what my day is like?” Biernath asks. “When is the permit coming in? When is the material coming in? With installation efficiency, it’s nice to see the brochure with the installation time, but it doesn’t matter if I can’t get the material, or if I don’t have the materials in the right order. If I can’t get certainty about the cadence, we don’t care about theoretical installation velocity. Ten years of experience tells me the times on the sheet won’t happen anyway.”
Kaizen through cadence
That 10 years in business also means Sunstall has worked with every major mounting brand, and one of its tighter-knit partnerships is with OMCO Solar, Helge says, because of its supply chain efficiencies and project cadence.
OMCO is a custom roll former that manufactured 8 GW of solar racking components for other companies before bringing its own Field-Fast fixed tilt and OMCO ORIGIN factory-direct tracker products to the market in 2018. That perspective is built into its product design (25 percent less “stuff” to assemble on average) and project management.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about what can happen in the field,” says Eric Goodwin, director of business development for OMCO Solar. “What causes construction delays? What can we optimize in our design and how can we create efficiencies for our partners? Reducing install time, even down to minutes per pile, can really make a difference.”
OMCO Solar manufactures all of its mounting and racking components in-house, which means the company can execute quickly, with shorter lead times and a supply chain dialed in to the U.S. market. All of those gears get put into motion with a kick-off cadence upon winning a bid for a project or portfolio. From PO to build to transfer, the entire process is scripted, and the larger the portfolio, the more efficiencies they can create.
“We have a repeatable tool that we follow internally to drive successful projects. On a portfolio of 10 projects for 15 MW, for example, we know what needs to comes first, second, third. We stay focused on delivery optimization to ensure installations are completed on time.”
Optimization opportunities include:
- Establishing solid schedules to optimize freight, finding the right shipping point and removing that variable cost.
- Combining a few components to ensure a full truck load vs. a partial, inefficient load.
- Communication around construction schedules. Larger projects could have weekly deliveries scripted out for four months, but it’s equally important on smaller projects.
“Our customers are realizing the benefit of getting locked into repeatability and understanding total costs versus cost per watt,” Goodwin says. “There is more benefit to bringing in a few select partners who excel at what they do.”
Add in module supplier partnerships, and the streamlining continues. Say OMCO Solar uses its relationship with one of its partners to nail down a volume of modules for the year or for a portfolio of Sunstall’s projects. Sunstall reaps the benefit of no longer being tasked with sourcing modules. OMCO Solar, as a custom manufacturer, can focus on a unified racking design for one module size, yet offer customization to each site, including wind or snow load requirements.
These are the efficiency gains — and the supply chain cadence — that Biernath is talking about. The next game-changer Sunstall and OMCO Solar are eyeing up is automating module drop-off and installation, bringing more of that Kaizen-factory mindset to the field.
“I want to say, ‘here is the master contract for the year, and now let’s execute’,” Biernath says. “People waste a great deal of time with RFPs. I say bring a professional, experienced team together, and then let’s get fast on the execution side. Time is money!”
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