A Site Visit to SOLIDpower in Heinsberg

Ballhausen
Andreas Ballhausen flanked by the old and new generation of BlueGen devices.

Twelve years after the first BlueGen system came to market, SOLIDpower will launch the next generation of its fuel cell units, called BG-15, in spring. On Nov. 21, 2018, it celebrated the new product announcement by taking partners, employees, the press and many other invited guests on a tour of its manufacturing plant in Heinsberg, Germany.

After many years of turmoil, during which SOLIDpower was reorganized several times, the business can now focus on marketing and selling its new fuel cell device. Andreas Ballhausen, the chief executive of the German subsidiary, took advantage of the opportunity offered by the factory tour to outline his plans for growth. The aim was to have a broad product portfolio in a few years’ time, including devices in other application areas, such as datacenters. To raise production capacity and cut costs, the company also intended to build a production plant at its headquarters in Mezzolombardo, in northern Italy. Further plans were to add LNG systems to the business’s range of natural gas-powered systems and gradually offer higher generation capacity, up to 100 kilowatts.

Hydrogenics

From manual to semi-automated

One will have to wait and see whether those expectations can be met on schedule. What is more important at this time is that the BlueGen BG-15 unit is making the business automate part of manufacturing. While a lot of progress has been achieved since October 2009, when SOLIDpower, formerly known as CFC, started production in Heinsberg (see HZwei, April 2010), BlueGen devices are still assembled manually. It takes two hours to stack 51 cells on top of each other before layers and seals can be added, and some workstations are staffed by not one but two employees to minimize errors. Additionally, to meet the standards the company has set for itself, inbound goods are inspected visually, partly under a microscope. “Today, the focus is on making top-notch products,” said Ballhausen.

He believes that there is still much work to do to convince people, particularly installers and end customers, of the technology’s benefits. Of course, putting in all that effort comes at a price. Hopes are that the new production plant in Mezzolombardo, where stacks would be made starting in 2020, will increase annual capacity to 16,000 units, the equivalent of 50 megawatts, while reducing the time and money spent on individual components.

Despite continuous improvements to the micro-CHP setup during the production run of the previous unit, of which the company sold over 1,000, Ballhausen said the new BlueGen device was a big leap forward. The assembly line is already being adjusted to prepare for the start of manufacturing, and the plan is to complete the switch to the new technology by May 2019.

read more: January issue 2019

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