Seeking links through Solar Supply Chain

January 4, 2011
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Stahlin Non-Metallic Enclosures of Belding isn’t exactly a household name to Michigan consumers, but pretty much the entire North American industrial electrical components industry knows who they are.

That’s why Stahlin is a perfect addition to the new West Michigan Solar Supply Chain, an informal group of businesses and organizations set up in early 2010 by The Right Place Inc., a regional economic development agency in Grand Rapids.

Rick Chapla, vice president of business development at The Right Place and an organizer of the solar supply chain group, with help from Bruce Goodman of the Varnum law firm, said the group is meeting frequently to “explore business development opportunities with Tier 1 or OEM companies” involved in producing equipment for electrical generation from sunlight.

In January the group plans to meet at the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon.

“We’ve got three renewable energy groups that are meeting on a monthly basis, and solar is one of the three,” said Chapla. The other groups are companies or organizations interested in supporting wind-generated electricity and bio-energy.

Mention solar energy in West Michigan and United Solar Ovonics in Greenville comes to mind.

“They are a participant,” said Chapla.

Stahlin, located at 500 Maple St. in Belding, is a 60-year-old company with 85 employees. It is a division of privately held Robroy, based near Pittsburgh.

Stahlin is a specialized company that manufactures electrical enclosures, primarily out of fiberglass materials. The enclosures are essentially a type of box that can range in size from 3 inches square to 5-by-7 feet. The enclosure protects electrical components used in an industrial environment from exposure to the elements, as well as protecting people from contact with the electrified components.

“We sell across all vertical markets. Anywhere there is an electrical control, we would sell into those markets,” said Jeffrey Seagle, president of Stahlin, which is pronounced “stay-lin.”

He said there tend to be many markets for Stahlin enclosures, but none of them are in consumer applications, only commercial or industrial settings.

Seagle said the West Michigan solar supply chain group also includes nonprofit entities such as colleges and universities.

“Everyone knows there’s this market developing in solar, and everybody is trying to figure out how to learn if it’s right for them — if there is opportunity,” said Seagle. “The group created a forum where ideas could be shared,” along with their experiences related to solar equipment manufacturing.

Companies that might be considered reluctant joiners, or are financially limited, need not worry.

“There is no membership associated with it,” said Chapla, and there is no cost to participate.

He has a list of about 20 company and organization names that are notified of meeting locations and dates of the solar supply chain group, but the number is constantly growing, he said.

Every month, “somebody hears about what we’re doing,” he said, so they call him and then show up at the next gathering.

Chapla is working to get an Adrian company, Patriot Solar, involved with the group in the year ahead.

Adrian is on the other side of the state, of course — “but that’s OK,” said Chapla. “It is first and foremost about the business development in and with West Michigan companies. But we also understand — especially given the competencies that are growing leaps and bounds in the Thumb area — that it is a matter of linking with companies in Michigan, not just West Michigan.”

“Frankly, I think there are probably others out there” in West Michigan. “We just need to find them. Slowly but surely, we’re finding them,” he said.

“Stahlin is absolutely at the top of my list, in terms of competency and capacity and the devoting of resources to diversify their product and expand business development opportunities,” said Chapla.

“They are a great role model, and I hold them in high regard as to what other companies should look for, as an example of best practices,” he added.

Seagle could not divulge specific figures for Stahlin sales but said the number is “greater than $25 million.” In 2009, Stahlin sales were off by about 15 to 20 percent, “but it’s all relative. I would say we fared well.”

“This year we’ve had a tremendous rebound and we’ll see record sales,” he added. “Part of it is in new markets such as solar. We’ve seen a real uptick.”

The parent company, Robroy, has been active in the electrical components industry for about 105 years, he said.

Enclosures for solar generation installations are “still less than 10 percent of our overall business but it has potential, at least for the next five years or so. We see some significant opportunities, really, in any of the renewable energies,” he said.  That’s because all of the different forms of renewable energy are mainly converted into electricity.

For more information about the West Michigan Solar Supply Chain, contact The Right Place at (616) 771-0325.

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