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Creative packaging protects bulky solar mounting components

AEE Solar, Redway, CA, sells solar, wind and micro-hydroelectric systems and equipment to contractors throughout North America. In April, the company debuted SnapNrack, a mounting system that is designed to simplify and reduce the cost of solar installations for contractors.

Made of extruded anodized aluminum, SnapNrack rails are manufactured in two lengths: 162 or 122 in. According to AEE Solar product manager Tim Vaughn, the unusual dimensions of the rails presents a shipping challenge. “Common carrier freight companies are not accustomed to handling long-slender pieces of freight,” he explains. “They're standardized on the dimension of a standard-size pallet. They're handling packages using forklifts. In our case the long extrusion is way outside of that, which creates a handling issue. You can get a lot of damage, and the only way to avert this risk is to packaging in such a way to avoid this damage as much as possible.”

Rails are shrink-wrapped in sets before being set in the
laminated paperboard crates.
Wooden blocks and planks made from salvaged wood further protect the rails during shipment by common carrier.

Keeping it green

Possible solutions considered included using slit-scored corrugated or wooden crate, but these had both financial and sustainable problems. Slit-scored corrugated would require workers to bend the edges of the corrugate and use a lot of tape to hold it together, comments River City Paper sales representative Amanda Ramsey.

Wooden crates would be so cost-prohibitive that it would limit how AEE Solar could sell its products. Vaughn remarks: “Wooden crates would be very expensive. One of our competitive products is shipped in wooden crates in large bulk. That's the only way they ship, but the company only sells large bulk quantities, where we wanted to sell more to the contractor that doesn't want to warehouse a bunch of material, can't afford to warehouse a lot of material, or orders per job.”

Around that same time, AEE Solar was launching SnapNrack, Laminations, part of Great Northern Corp., debuted its Ucrate packaging. UCrate consists of seamless U–shaped channels of laminated paperboard that fit snugly together to create a sturdy container for shipping long, narrow products. The construction and design of the UCrate makes it ideal for the mounting system's rails, which can run up to nearly 14 ft in length.

Fast, simple packouts

For efficiency, AEE Solar typically stages the rail sets for packing until 30 orders have been collected. Because the Ucrates are longer than the solar panel rails, AEE Solar employees first cut down the Ucrate to an appropriate size for each rail order. Each pair of rails is stretch wrapped in three areas to prevent rattling and shifting during transit.

The stretch-wrapped rails are placed into the Ucrate followed by wooden blocks that are placed on the inside ends.. The blocks are 3.375-in. sq and 1.5-in. thick, and are cut to size from scrap 2x4s at local pallet companies. Wooden blocks have eliminated any problem with ends of the rails becoming bent or misshapen during transit and handling.

The company will send just one set of rails upon a contractor's request. “One set of rails is roughly the size of a 2x4,” Tommy Demmon, warehouse manager for AEE Solar, explains. “We either put two sets of two rails each in the Ucrate, or we put one set and then a 2x4 next to it as filler.”

According to Vaughn, it was critical that the end-caps would be eco-friendly like the rest of the recyclable Ucrates. This is why AEE Solar uses salvaged wood versus newly manufactured lumber.

After placing the top of the Ucrate over the wrapped rails, the employee uses an air-powered staple gun to place three staples around the wooden blocks to secure them to the top and bottom Ucrate pieces. A strip of shipping tape down the seams where the top and bottom Ucrate pieces meet to ensure they don't separate. Afinishedpackageweighs15 to 30 lb.

Branding power

AEE Solar had Laminations custom-print UCrates with its logo and tagline—AEE Solar: The Only Wholesale Distributor You'll Ever Need—spaced evenly along the crate. For further branding, AEE also uses product labels designed by The Strategic Word and supplied by Uline. Commenting on the combination of the sticker and the printed packaging, Vaughn says, “It really stands out and helps reinforce the product name along with our company name.”

More information is available:
Laminations, part of Great Northern Corp. 800/925-2626.
River City Paper, 916/364-8800.
Uline, 800/958-5463.
The Strategic Word, 408/280-1698.

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