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Putting solar panels in the frame

28 November 2011

IPSOL Energy operates the UK's first and only fully accredited test-house for IEC certification of commercial solar panels. Its state-of-the-art test and measurement equipment is based on the MiniTec Profile System machine framing and building components system – claimed to be one of the fastest to assemble of all available framing systems on the market today


IPSOL Energy provides specialist product test, R&D and consultancy services in clean energy technologies, with particular emphasis on the rapidly expanding solar photovoltaic (PV) market.

From its base in Nottingham, the company operates the UK's first and only fully accredited test-house for IEC certification of commercial solar panels and offers many other complementary services, including PV module performance measurement, environmental evaluation and PV cell characterisation.

A strategic partner and a spinout company from Loughborough University, IPSOL's Centre of Excellence includes state-of-the-art test and measurement equipment based on the MiniTec Profile System machine framing and building components system.

Recently completed IPSOL installations have included MiniTec's structural elements and machine frame hardware for three separate IEC certification tests. Each required the flexibility to accommodate a wide assortment of solar panel types and sizes as the ‘unit under test’, and to provide a stable structure for various pieces of measurement or test-support equipment.

The projects covered an enclosed 30 metres squared soak room where PV panel performance is measured over long periods under simulated light and environmental conditions. These include a UV-degradation test-stand that measures a solar panel's resistance to UV exposure, and a hail test where 25mm diameter ice balls are 'fired' at the panel to test its ability to withstand such impact.

IEC certification not only guarantees high-quality and reliability but is also a requirement for PV modules destined for use by the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change and other nations’ Feed-in Tariff schemes (FiTs). FiTs ensure that investors in small-scale, low-carbon electricity generation are guaranteed payment for the surplus power they generate and export.

From the initial contact MiniTec worked closely with IPSOL, using its own in-house design service to develop 3D CAD concept drawings for each test-stand, incorporating all of the salient information for IPSOL's preferred measurement equipment that would eventually be fitted

IPSOL's CEO, Peter Khoury says that, from the outset, his team was impressed by service that it received from MiniTec. "We had a good idea of what was required and gave them sketches to work with,” he says, “but the attention to detail was particularly pleasing."

Once the order was placed, these concept designs were developed concurrently as IPSOL acquired the third party components, such as UV lamps and lamp holders, and supplied them to MiniTec during pre-assembly to ensure their correct installation and to co-ordinate electrical cabling requirements.

The flexibility of the MiniTec Profile System allows for rails, hardware and frame construction to be easily adapted to accommodate changes during the build. In particular, the novel Powerlock fastening system is a fast and effective frame connector that requires only the twist of an Allen key with none of the profile pre-machining required by competitive product systems.

This makes profile re-use and adaptation possible with minimum cost and effort - and also contributes to one of the fastest assembly times for all the available framing systems on the market today.

Practically all of the frame construction parts of the three IPSOL systems are built from standard MiniTec components, including a hand-operated hydraulic lift with four parallel cylinders that allows balanced vertical positioning of the large solar panels for the hail test. Manually operated slideways with locking mechanisms are used elsewhere to position panels or test equipment in both horizontal and vertical planes, with Z axis positioning aided by a chain counterbalance arrangement that is integrated in the vertical column.

The soak room's Alumetal panels are finished in a matt black with tinted Perspex door panels. IPSOL has fitted a laser sensor measurement system to the hail and UV test stands to enable precise and repeatable manual positioning for the various tests.

IPSOL's Centre of Excellence offers realistic product development and certification time scales when compared with test houses in Germany, the USA and the Far East. However, the company remains very conscious of the fact that the quality and aesthetic presentation of its in-house equipment should impress both UK and international customers, and that this is just as important as providing the flexibility for fast turnaround testing. Mr Khoury again:

"In terms of quality and value for money, MiniTec ticked all of the boxes. Our throughput rates are excellent and they also gave us excellent support after the test-stands were delivered to iron-out a few minor snags that arose when we came to commission the equipment at our facility."

As an end-user, IPSOL used MiniTec's in-house design service for this particular project; however, should OEMs and system integrators prefer to undertake this aspect of the work themselves, they are free to use MiniTec’s iCAD Assembler software suite.

Available free of charge, online or offline, this application may be used in a standalone programming mode, requiring no CAD platform or specialist CAD knowledge, or in combination with the customers preferred 2D or 3D CAD software system. Features include straightforward menu selection and drag-and-drop manipulation of individual profiles, connectors and ancillary components.

Using this software, elements can be fully assembled on-screen to realise designs for anything from simple machine frames to complex automated assembly cells. The software generates parts lists and bills-of-materials for pricing and provides the designer with more than 50 data output format options in 2D and 3D, including AutoCAD, SolidWorks, ProEngineer as well as IGES and STEP4.

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