Northern States Metals/Solar FlexRack


When Northern States Metals, a Youngstown, Ohio-based manufacturer of extruded aluminum components, first delved into the renewable energy business, it may have appeared to some to be straying a bit far from its core business. But in reality it was leveraging its metals and engineering expertise to forge a new business segment. The bet paid off. With the significant adoption of PV solar in recent years, its renewable energy business now represents a major share of the company’s revenues.

Such innovation, vision and creativity have been key to the company’s success, CEO Tom Meola says.

Northern States Metals was founded in 1974 by Paul Cusson, and it is the manufacturer of the Solar FlexRack, the most innovative photovoltaic solar mounting solution on the market today, the company says. It provides racking to large commercial and utility scale solar power installations.

Northern States Metals is a full-service, multi-operational organization offering a spectrum of extruded aluminum services including extrusions, fabrications, finishes and assembly. Vending machines are one popular niche for its services.

But, thanks to the chance the company took half-a-decade ago, “Solar FlexRack is the core business today,” Meola says. “Our aluminum fabricated extrusion business is still an important business segment that we are committed to, but the solar industry has grown at a faster rate.”

The decision to branch out into the solar business was made five years ago at a brainstorming session around a conference table. “Paul has really been a driver, fostering product innovation,” Meola says. “He’s truly an entrepreneur; he was willing to take a risk and move into uncharted territory. He developed and supported the solar business, which was different than the product line he’d been serving for 35 years.”

With Solar FlexRack providing factory pre-assembled mounting systems, its customers simply need to attach the solar panels, reducing their field labor costs and liability risks. If clients purchase from competitors of Solar FlexRack, on the other hand, they have to assemble the racks onsite, which adds more time and cost. In fact, mounting and racking assembly alone can quickly escalate into a major construction project with all of the attendant difficulties. With Solar FlexRack’s factory preassembled racks, all of that is avoided.

“There are fewer components, and it’s simpler for a better outcome and bankable, lower overall project costs,” Meola says.

The racks are delivered to utility-scale projects and large solar fields ranging from 1 MW to 50 MW. Solar FlexRack has installed more than 750 MW in the United States and Canada. The company has also completed projects in the Virgin Islands, Australia, Cuba and Japan.

Some of its projects have benefited a wastewater treatment facility in Colorado, an alternative energy project at California State University at San Bernardino and the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich. Solar FlexRack also installed racks for the Whitewater Solar Farm in Ontario that will provide enough electricity to power 280 homes, as well as racking at the Eagle Springs Organic Farm in Eagle, Colo., and the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport in Tennessee.

Mistake-Proof Manufacturing

Northern States Metals manufactures its PV mounting systems at sites in Youngstown, Ohio, Markham, Ontario and Phoenix.

The company’s manufacturing processes are marked by a commitment to lean principles and poka-yoke mistake-proofing techniques. “We have implemented lean manufacturing principles to ensure that our products are manufactured consistently meeting customer specifications in the most cost-effective manner.” Meola explains. “Our manufacturing processes have been designed for optimum product flow that includes the use of poka-yoke tools to ensure that critical product features are consistently met.” The company began its lean initiative in the 2007 time frame.

Strong Backbone

The company’s vision for the future is to continue to grow in the renewable energy and industrial products sectors with its innovation and engineering capabilities.

“Since the inception of these businesses, engineering, innovation and creativity has provided a strong foundation for growth,” Meola says. “The company is recognized for taking on challenges that others have shunned. Our strong engineering backbone   has positioned the company well to take on the complicated challenges and provide cost-effective solutions for our customers. This has been our recipe for success. Our vision is to continue to develop both our renewable energy and industrial products businesses, leveraging our existing capabilities to continue to develop solutions in both market segments.”