U-shaped crates of laminated paperboard protect solar panel rails

Service, performance and price play their part in selection of protective packaging

Much has changed in the green energy marketplace since David Katz founded Alternative Energy Engineering 30-plus years ago with the idea of bringing solar power to the people of northern California.

Today, AEE Solar is a major distributor of solar power equipment with headquarters in Redway, Calif., a warehouse in Sacramento, offices in British Columbia and Ontario, Canada, and shipping across North America.

Technological advances in photovoltaic systems, rebate programs from utilities, tax incentives from the government, increasing awareness of carbon footprints and the volatility in the price of fossil fuel energy have all contributed to sometimes dramatic spurts of growth in the solar power industry.

“Up until about October and the start of the recession, our industry was growing exponentially for the last 10 years or so,” said Tim Vaughn, product manager for AEE Solar. “Overall, the solar power equipment industry is growing 25 to 35 percent annually. I worked at one company that grew 300 percent in one year.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the need to ship solar panel equipment in such a way as to ensure its timely, damage-free arrival at the job site or contractor warehouse. And that’s where Laminations® UCrate® comes into the picture for AEE Solar.

Launched just last April, UCrate consists of seamless U–shaped channels of laminated paperboard that fit snugly together to create a sturdy, environmentally friendly way to ship long, narrow products. The construction and design of UCrate makes it ideal for solar panel rails that can run up to nearly 14 feet in length.

As a distributor, AEE Solar carries an extensive variety of photovoltaic panels and mounting systems from multiple manufacturers and distributes the equipment to integrators and installers. The equipment is distributed in the OEM’s packaging.

But several months ago when AEE Solar began to manufacture its own mounting system rails under the name SnapNrack® in addition to carrying those of other manufacturers, the company needed to come up with its own packaging, said Vaughn.

Working with his distributor, River City Paper, Vaughn had previously tried other approaches in packaging solar panel rails, including slit-scored corrugated. “The workers had to really bend the edges of the corrugated and use a lot of tape to hold it together, so it was a very labor intensive process,” said Amanda Ramsey, River City Paper sales representative.

River City Paper was already carrying Laminations® signature VBoard® product, which led Ramsey to think that Laminations might have some ideas on how to package a long, narrow product like the rails.

“I gave Chris Wingenroth a call and he was all over it,” said Ramsey, referring to her Laminations Account Manager.

The UCrate solution

Made of extruded anodized aluminum, SnapNrack rails are manufactured in two lengths: 162 inches or 122 inches. In shipping and handling, two major priorities are protecting the finish and preventing the ends from becoming bent.

AEE Solar employees wrap pairs of rails with stretch wrap to prevent rattling and shifting during transit and then place either one or two pairs of wrapped rails in the appropriate length UCrate of 168 inches or 126 inches. Rails can be placed into upright UCrates or the crates can be placed over the rails and then flipped upright.

Wooden blocks are placed on the inside ends, and the bottom UCrate piece is stapled to the blocks. The blocks are 3-3/8 inches square and 1-1/2 inches thick and are cut to size from scrap 2X4s at local pallet companies. The wooden blocks have eliminated any problem with ends of the rails becoming bent or misshapen during transit and handling, Ramsey and Vaughn agreed. Other end-cap options include 2-fold and 4-fold corrugated.

At AEE Solar, the top of the crate is then put in place and also stapled to the end blocks. The final touch is running a strip of shipping tape down the seams where the tops and bottoms meet to ensure they don’t separate.

A finished package weighs 15-30 pounds, making the packaging of the rails easily a one-person operation, Vaughn said.

The features of UCrate are tailor-made for a shipping application such as the one at AEE Solar. “UCrate is an excellent product for us, both in the cost of the material and its durability for shipping,’’ said Vaughn.

“UCrate has a number of advantages over other protective package solutions when it comes to the solar rails,” Wingenroth said. “UCrate is lighter than wood crates, offers better impact resistance and scuff protection than corrugated, delivers substantial beam strength without sacrificing shock absorption capabilities, and makes it much easier to load long, narrow products.”

The manufacture of UCrate product was made possible by a substantial investment in proprietary equipment by Laminations and the expiration last spring of a patent held by a competitor.

The custom-designed machinery accommodates paper rolls up to 18 inches wide to create matching U-shaped channels with a broad range of leg heights and base widths. Standard lengths extend to 300 inches but longer lengths also are available. Standard caliper options range from 0.080 to 0.600 inches.

AEE Solar uses crates with a base width of 3-1/4 inches, leg lengths of 3-1/2 inches and a caliper of 0.080 inches.

High-quality print options for adding logos, messages or handling instructions also are available. AEE Solar has custom-printed UCrate with their logo and tagline — AEE Solar: The Only Wholesale Distributor You’ll Ever Need — spaced evenly along the crate.

Over the AEE logo in the middle of the package, workers place a dark blue SnapNrack logo over the AEE logo. “It really stands out and helps reinforce the name of our product along with the name of our company,” Vaughn said.

Price, Service, Performance

Laminations competed with another paperboard crate manufacturer for the SnapNrack packaging business, said Vaughn, who had used the competitor’s U-shaped packaging at a solar equipment company he worked at prior to AEE Solar. In choosing UCrate, price was a factor, but not the only one.

“The quotes were pretty comparable, but when I calculated freight and some other things, I liked what I saw with UCrate. The response time from Laminations was good and the service was there,” he said.

Vaughn said he also likes the clean, professional look that the UCrate packaging gives to his product. The clay coat with white finish and sturdy nature of the laminated paperboard really hold up to the handling stress of shipping by common carrier across the country and into Canada.

Ramsey, who has served the AEE Solar account for about two years, said superior customer service by Laminations and Wingenroth really helped secure the account with AEE Solar.

“Without Chris, the deal would not have gone through,” she said. “He drove up here to make calls with me, answered my phone calls and e-mails within minutes and went beyond customer service. He became like a friend. UCrate represented the first time we had quoted on a product like this and Chris really talked me through it.”

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