The bet that Zamp Solar made three years ago on U.S. manufacturing paid off this month, when the company was acquired by PulseTech Products Corp. of Southlake, Texas, for an undisclosed amount.
The deal with PulseTech will keep Zamp’s administration, engineering and assembly operations in Bend while bringing an infusion of capital to help Zamp keep up with runaway growth and enter new markets, General Manager Conor Miller said. Zamp makes solar-panel modules and battery-charging kits for off-grid uses, primarily recreational vehicles. But there’s potential for growth in agricultural and industrial uses, and that’s where PulseTech comes in.
The Texas company has proprietary charging technology that extends the life of 12-volt and 24-volt batteries by preventing corrosion. PulseTech devices are sold to a variety of industries, including the U.S. military. The fact that Zamp Solar is one of the only companies making solar panels for off-grid uses in the United States made it a very attractive acquisition, PulseTech founder Pete Smith said. “We think we can use that to penetrate markets we wouldn’t otherwise.”
The acquisition closed on Feb. 3. The companies will continue to operate separately while working to combine their technologies into a new product line, Miller said. He declined to discuss Zamp Solar’s revenue, but he said the employee headcount has grown from 15 two years ago to 35 last year to 53 this year.
“If we ever stopped growing, we’d be making really good money,” he said.
With the acquisition, Zamp co-founder Steve Nelson stepped down as president but is still an investor in the company, Miller said. Co-founder John Yozamp exited the company in 2016, he said.
Miller joined Zamp three years ago to help Nelson and Yozamp set up local manufacturing and stop importing. At the time, Miller said his main argument for U.S.-based production was to give the company more control over pricing and quality. A new tariff on Chinese imports has since given Zamp a competitive price advantage, Miller said.
Zamp still imports a few module sizes from India and Canada, he said, but most of its products are made at the Jamison Street headquarters on the north side of Bend. Zamp buys photovoltaic cells from SolarWorld in Hillsboro and assembles them into panels with output ranging from 10 watts to 230 watts.
Local production has allowed Zamp to do custom projects for RV makers like Winnebago, which wanted to fit a 200-watt array onto the roof of a motor home, Miller said. Zamp came up with a two-panel configuration consisting of a 160-watt square and a 40-watt rectangle, he said. That’s something other companies wouldn’t take on because they have to buy panels by the cargo container, he said.
Zamp has also come up with design features like an aluminum frame that can be mounted from any point, Miller said. That was an improvement over the standard imported frame with two pre-drilled holes, he said.
The finished modules are designed with the off-grid user in mind, Miller said. “Everything becomes plug-and-play.”
Most of Zamp’s sales are directly to RV manufacturers, including Airstream, Winnebago and Forest River, Miller said. The company also sells modules and portable kits through more than 5,000 RV and boat dealers.
There’s no doubt that Zamp’s growth is tied to the RV industry’s resurgence since 2010. The industry shipped 504,599 trailers and motor homes in 2017, a 17.2 percent increase over the prior year, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.
Miller knows that RV sales are cyclical, but he said he’s not concerned about how Zamp will fare in the next downturn. “We’re just scratching the surface of the market out there,” Miller said.
Until the acquisition by PulseTech, Zamp was so busy responding to demand from the RV market, there wasn’t much time to delve into other markets, Miller said. “Our biggest challenge is figuring out what to say ‘no’ to.”
Miller was set to travel this week to Maryland to talk to U.S. military officials about a Zamp product. “No one is building a product like this in the U.S., and we’re doing it in Bend,” he said.
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