Innovation Russian Style: Aluminum Panels

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There’s nothing at MetalMiner we like more than to bring you news of new developments, products or innovations particularly if they further the use of metals. So it was a pleasure to catch up with an old friend of mine Igor Malyshev this week.

Russia has come a long way from the first days I did business there in the early 90’s when the answer to a slow paying customer in the depths of one Siberian winter was we lock him in Gregors garage, in the morning he pays cash! gulp. Well as you can imagine, I always paid my bills on time. Igor fortunately never had to lock me in his garage or anyone else’s for that matter and for a number of years we very successfully cooperated in the sale of Rusal’s semi finished products in Asia. Since then, Igor has moved on to another Russian mill Kamensk Uralsky Metallurgical Works (Kumz) and is again doing wonders developing their sales. But here his challenge was greater.

Kumz had a division making roll formed aluminum panels for the refrigeration industry. This involved a technology developed, I believe, by Alcan around the year dot whereby two sheets of aluminum are rolled together with pre-determined channels left between them through which refrigerant is run. These panels had one enduring quality, they lasted forever. Well if not forever at least in excess of 20 years, which in those days was how long you expected your refrigerator to last ” ask your mother. As the refrigerator market became commoditised and innovations in design meant consumers wanted the next style more frequently the life cycle of these devices came down. Now consumers change appliances every 6-7 years and who needs to pay the small premium necessary for a product that will last 20 years when for a little less you can have a tube tack welded to a panel that will last for 7? So Igor was left with a mill capable of making a product no-one wanted. And here’s the one endearing feature of Russians that has not been lost in the rush to a modern vibrant economy ” the ability to innovate and create an opportunity out of adversity.

Rather than close the mill down or scrap the equipment and buy new rolling equipment, the Russians simply painted their panel black and launched a range of solar panels for the rapidly growing solar heating market. Exports are booming principally to the southern (warmer) Ex-Soviet states and the Middle East, most notably Turkey. Though the mill can make finished units, they usually export just the panels and allow final assembly by local contractors. With the financial return on solar water heaters in the region of 5-10 years (depending on your latitude) long life is an absolute necessity. These panels are much more efficient than the copper tube and back plate designs.

Aluminum PanelAluminum Panels

Now isn’t that a neat idea? Not that we facilitate business transactions here but if you are interested in contacting Igor directly, drop him a line at Editor’s Note: But please be sure you pay your bills on time.

–Stuart Burns

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