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An Alabama startup’s innovation could bring solar cell phone charging stations to a park bench near you


(Video Above: the Sun Charge Systems Inc. solar benches are made in their Alabama factory.)

CLEVELAND, Ala. — In the workshops at Hornsby Steel, hulking machines bend and curve steel plates, pipes and rods to the exacting specifications of architects and builders. And it’s the Blount County firm’s manufacturing know-how that’s at the heart of a new venture that aims to keep mobile devices charged when people are on the go.

Sun Charge Systems Inc., as the startup is called, produces solar-powered benches that act as charging stations in places like city parks, university grounds, sports fields and remote settings. It also makes a solar charging pole that, like the benches, is equipped with USB ports and 12-volt outlets.

David Hornsby, owner of Hornsby Steel, said it’s important to him that the Sun Charge solar benches and poles all leave the production floor bearing a prominent “Made in Alabama” logo.

“We build a quality product, and we are proud of where it comes from,” Hornsby said. “Plus, we’re proud that we are producing jobs for our guys.”

When he came up with the idea for Sun Charge, Hornsby had been looking for a way to keep his workforce active during lulls between orders for massive bent plates and curved beams. As part of this diversification push, his workshops had once turned out hay feeders, useful products in the company’s agricultural backyard. But Hornsby wanted a product with broader appeal.

“I was driving home one day, and it hit me like a ton of bricks that this is what we needed to try,” he said. “I think this is a product whose time has come. You can literally set this bench down in the middle of a pasture in Wyoming where there’s not a power line for a hundred miles and charge your cell phone.”

THE GOVERNOR VISITS

After a year of planning, Sun Charge officially launched last April 22 — Earth Day – with a ceremony at nearby Palisades Park, where a donated solar bench was placed. Last month, Governor Robert Bentley stopped by the Hornsby facility in Cleveland and received an up-close look at the Sun Charge solar benches. He even took a moment to charge his mobile phone.

“Small businesses are the backbone of Alabama’s economy, and the expertise and innovation behind the products made in the workshops of Hornsby Steel and Sun Charge Systems demonstrate why so many small businesses in the state are thriving,” Governor Bentley said.

“Sun Charge’s new solar-powered bench charging stations aim to provide a practical solution in a world where so many people want to stay connected, and I’m proud that the company has decided to stamp their product ‘Made in Alabama,’” he added.

The Sun Charge team says the total investment in the venture will approach $1 million as they work to develop a market for the solar charging stations. Hornsby said the eventual production target is 1,000 units a year. That could mean 15 or more new employees in Hornsby Steel’s Oneonta shop, where the Sun Charge products are assembled.

BUILDING A BASE

For now, the focus is getting Sun Charge off the ground with its target customer base, according to Geraldi Mejia, who is spearheading the startup’s marketing effort. Primary targets are cities, parks, recreation departments, universities, landscape design companies, retail venues and hospitals.

Following its launch, Sun Charge rolled out a lease program for municipalities, and solar benches have been placed in parks in Trussville and Alabaster. Mejia said Sun Charge products received a positive reaction at last month’s National Recreation and Park Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas, which attracted more than 7,000 park and rec officials from around the nation.

Brian Davis, a small business and international trade expert at the University of Alabama, thinks the Sun Charge products have immediate potential in the U.S. market because they solve a common problem people experience with their smart devices while on the go – a low battery.

“Who wants to miss an important conference call for work while at the park, or not capture a video of the youngster making a hit at the little league ballpark all due to a dead battery? With Sun Charge, students won’t miss that photo opportunity of a special moment with friends at their school’s game day event,” Davis said. “They can do on-line homework at a lakeside pavilion or outdoor campus café. More importantly, they can make that call for help when emergency situations arise outdoors.”

Davis, who directs the university’s Alabama International Trade Center and serves with the Alabama Small Business Development Center, has advised the Sun Charge team on the technical aspects of selling products to government agencies and provided U.S. industry research.

NEW FEATURES

Meija said Sun Charge is now working on new features that can be added to the charging stations, joining a Wi-Fi hotspot and a LED lighting system as current options. He said they would like to equip the benches with sensors that allow data to be transmitted to maintenance crews and owners. They’re also working on an emergency push-button feature that would send a distress signal.

Meija said the growing affordability of solar panels allowed the company to move ahead with its products, providing the critical advantage of allowing them to be placed almost anywhere.

“We feel solar, or sustainable energy, is the future,” he said. “Solar just made sense. First of all, it’s free, and it’s started to become more available to the masses. Ten years ago, it didn’t make sense; this just makes sense.”

UA’s Davis, who has assisted Hornsby Steel in entering foreign markets, believes the solar charging stations would be ideal for overseas locations ranging from urban areas to remote outposts that are off the power grid or have an unreliable power supply.

“The products were engineered with exports in mind,” he said. “They can be collapsed and packed flat for shipment in containerized cargo. At some point down the road, the products will go international.”

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