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Improved model for solar collector manufacture

Improved model for solar collector manufacture
MiniTec has applied its production systems knowledge to automating the fabrication of solar collectors.

About half of the total energy consumption of the EU is used to generate heat or for cooling. The greater part of the power needed is produced from fossil fuel or nuclear power. Only by using of renewable energy sources will it be possible to stay comfortable while significantly reducing the release of gases harmful into the atmosphere and prevent the consumption of material reserves. Renewable energy is clearly a growth market, but there are still many risks for the players in it. On the one hand, manufacturers of solar facilities are dependent on grants whose availability is more and more difficult to foresee. And on the other hand the fabrication processes must become more effective and thus more cost-effective, while still being subject to numerous constraints. 

Innovative automation solutions and refined assembly processes are, therefore, in demand. MiniTec has been a leading provider of innovative, efficient solutions in this area for over twenty years, and has been actively pursuing the development of production facilities for photovoltaic modules for the last 15 years. Many developments from this area can be transferred to the processes of manufacture of solar collectors for heat generation, which still tend to based on traditional industrial fabrication. 

This one-off style fabrication or very small series production tends to make products more expensive, and can impact on quality. There is a need, then, for the manufacture of solar thermal systems to be optimised for continuous quality assurance and cost-effective production. Greater standardisation of the components will of course help, but just as important is a reorganised manufacturing model to deliver series level production at the highest quality. Minitec has developed a new production model precisely to meet thee needs. 

Since moving into new premises in Schönenberg-Kübelberg (Pfalz) in 2009, MiniTec has used the production facilities freed up in its Waldmohr plant for the construction of a production line for the latest generation of flat solar thermal collectors. Now the company has turned this plant into a Solar Thermal Competence Centre (STCC) to support collector manufacturers from planning and setup of the production facility through certification and production start-up, giving them the benefit of practical experience in collector fabrication and supporting the continual improvement of assembly methods based on empirical evidence. 

MiniTec reckons that the development of a new solar collector can take at least two years. This time is needed to design the collector, develop individual parts, produce a prototype, and certify the final product. The certificate requires a series of time-consuming tests, without which the collector may not be installed. Moreover, production facilities must be procured and ready to operate by that time, in order to produce the collectors to be tested. And then the product changes resulting from testing often lead to entirely different requirements for the production facilities, which can have expensive consequences. 

Significant funds are needed to finance the period from development to certification. Recognising all these problems, MiniTec developed an entirely new model for collector production. Producers who want to start manufacturing solar collectors can obtain an unrestricted licence for a certified collector from MiniTec, confirmation of parts availability, and a tested production facility with the latest state of the art equipment and processes. 

The setup of a production line for collectors takes about nine months. During that time, the client can place employees in the STCC for training and produce the first collectors under their own logo, to be used for marketing and market introduction. Like all MiniTec production facilities, the assembly line for solar collectors is built on a modular principle. Newcomers to the market can operate the line manually to start production of about 100 units per day. If necessary, the facility can then be upgraded as far as fully automated production for the manufacture of up to 1,000 collectors per working day. 

The collectors are assembled on workpiece carriers that are automatically transported on an FMS conveyor to machining centres integrated into the line. The absorbers are manufactured on a laser welding system (LWS) in a parallel process. This system welds copper tubing at a speed of about 15m/min onto the aluminium absorber area, which has a highly selective coating. This combination of materials has significant cost and weight advantages over the conventional Cu/Cu- absorbers. Fourteen LWS systems are already in use, with great success. 

For all preparatory processes such as pipe preparation, production of harps and meanders, leak testing, and straightening systems, stations working in parallel are available so that the manufacturer can operate and control all work steps internally.
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