A contract manufacturer is hired to produce the products that other companies design. BCI Engineering, a steel equipment contract manufacturer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has spent the last 13 years fabricating many solar racking and mounting solutions put in the ground around the globe — over 20 GW worth, mostly for tracker original equipment manufacturers.
With a prolific output on the production side, BCI decided it was time to design and manufacture a solar racking product all in-house. The group unveiled a fixed-tilt solution called Full Tilt in April 2021.
“BCI has always been fundamentally a contract manufacturer. But we are also a team of engineers and product developers,” said Matt Carroll, CEO of BCI Engineering. “Fixed-tilt presented itself as the right opportunity. There is plenty of room for innovation and new challenges from larger modules and difficult project sites. There hasn’t been a lot of investment in fixed-tilt.”
Fixed-tilt racking isn’t the front-running structure choice for solar developers working at scale in terms of power output. With hundreds of acres to cover in solar modules, single-axis trackers can generate more power from the same footprint of a fixed-tilt project.
However, the solar tracking market is cornered by companies like Nextracker and Array Technologies, where fixed-tilt racking has more players in the game. With that in mind, BCI decided the more diversified fixed-tilt market was the right choice for its first self-developed racking.
Going Full Tilt into the fixed-tilt market
BCI was started by co-founders Matt Carroll and Tim Brantingham in 2006. In the beginning, the company produced heavy equipment for railroad, mining and other steel-related industries. Two years later, BCI began manufacturing solar racking for other companies. Since that introduction to solar racking production, Carroll said 95% of what BCI currently produces is related to renewables.
Full Tilt is the culmination of BCI’s experience producing other companies’ racking structures. The system is designed to encourage quicker installation by being lightweight and made of six components, but it’s still tested to withstand wind speeds of more than 100 mph.
With the market shifting to larger format modules, BCI aimed to produce fixed-tilt racking that could accommodate these panel sizes. To do so, Full Tilt has a panel rail that the company dubbed “Longhorn” that has notches in the flange of the rail that can self-align modules as they’re fed onto the track.
“The flanges engage the interior surface of the module frame itself,” said Chris Bartley, VP of business development at BCI Engineering. “It slides right into position, so you don’t have to worry about micro-adjusting the module to align bolt holes. You slide it up, it falls into place and it’s in.”
The panel rails on Full Tilt rotate. Installers can load modules onto the racking when it’s flat, and once in place, set the rails at the proper angle.
Panels are secured in two-in-portrait orientation using either cinch clips, threaded fasteners or lock bolts. That pivoting panel rail also means installers or technicians can adjust the modules to access their underside. Plus, the dimensions of each Full Tilt system are determined and manufactured on a per-project basis for module adjustability.
“We’re trying to make our designs as universal as we can, but we realize we can’t because the modules are all over the place these days,” Carroll said. “Full Tilt has been designed to be easily customized to fit any module size.”
BCI is trying to fill a gap in solar development, especially in smaller nations, where flat, open land is becoming scarcer. Just by having fewer to no moving parts, the logistics of installing a fixed-tilt racking on undulating topographies is simpler than single-axis trackers.
The company’s geotechnical confidence in those environments stems from another solar product it helps produce. BCI has a hand in creating other solar technologies, co-founding foundations company Solar Pile International and energy storage offerings with Invinity Energy Systems. Through the former company, BCI found its footing in providing geotechnical guidance.
Solar Pile International produces several ground-mount options, including a standard I-beam, but its Solar X Wing Pile and Solar X Blade Pile are designed to embed at shallower depths in loose, sandy or rocky soils, reactive clays and frost-heave zones. Pair that with Full Tilt and solar can be installed in places it might not have been otherwise.
“We’re going to take advantage of that as part of this ecosystem about marrying these two things together and taking some risk away from EPCs and even the developers,” Carroll said.
Leveraging its global footprint
BCI has 16 offices and manufacturing hubs across the globe located in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Italy, Australia, India, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China. With that global presence, the company has experience with the logistics of manufacturing and shipping heavy steel equipment in an international supply chain. It also provides product testing for varied environmental conditions.
“That skillset and that service was really needed in the racking space, particularly with these early-stage racking companies, where they knew solar, they had really good ideas on the product side, but they definitely needed that extra support on the supply chain manufacturing side,” Bartley said.
Given the company’s output leading up to creating Full Tilt, Carroll said BCI is comfortable producing racking structures in the hundreds-of-megawatts range and hopes Full Tilt will eventually reach that scale.
“By the way, we’re still a contract manufacturer. It’s still our bread and butter and will remain a big piece of what we do, but we’ve always approached it from a more holistic perspective. We help companies bring their companies to market. We’re not just manufacturers,” he said.