How product benchmarking can help make informed decisions to stay competitive in the Paygo market
Within the growing solar energy sector, key organisations have needs which evolve along with those of the end-users. Distributors and manufacturers need to provide more high quality and high performance products while keeping cost effectiveness in mind both for production and pricing for final use. The compatibility of the products also represents a major factor for solar energy solutions circulating on the Paygo market. Distributors have a need to ensure that the products they choose and the components necessary for manufacture are readily available and that they can be delivered quickly to customers.
While organisations like VeraSol provide a database in which certification information and product specifications are stored, the information may be difficult to interpret for prospective distributors and investors who are in search of contextualised insights. Within this context, organisations can opt for external expertise. Consulting engineers can step in to provide clarification for data points which have already been measured. Through product analyses investors can receive guidance and distributors have access to more understandable information before merchandising choices are made. Through our benchmarking process, SolarisLab is able to compare devices of an organisation’s choosing to give meaningful results which can validate their product choice, or guide them through the selection based on their specific needs or preoccupations, as we successfully did with Oolu, one of the fastest-growing off-grid solar distributor in West Africa.
"SolarisLab helped us to analyze and validate our product selection, providing a full technical and commercial report full of detailed and relevant information. The experts of SolarisLab working on the tests and products review guided our team in the important decision of selecting the best product among a few comparable options. We recommend the technical services of SolarisLab and we'll use them again in the future." - Vincenzo C. of Oolu, Tier 1 Off-grid distributor in Western Africa
What is Product Benchmarking?
The benchmarking process is one that involves comparing the performance and features of a particular product with those of similar products in the market to gain insights and improve competitiveness. In the solar industry, SHS units are often compared to industry leaders to see how one manufacturer's design measures up to eventual competitors. SolarisLab has completed these types of missions in the past and our engineers tailor their approach to each organisation which consults with them.
A thorough product benchmarking process for energy access hardware involves the comparison of different devices from varying manufacturers to determine which option provides the best value for cost. This type of analysis can be a useful step in confirming a product’s performance capacity and durability after lab testing. The performance of a device is validated in lab settings, but it is still pertinent to perform endurance testing to ensure the device’s readiness for use in a last-mile environment. It is beneficial for investors to have their potential products examined to assure their investment and for distributors to reduce the risk of after-sales investment.
Engineers can produce a complete and comprehensive final report which will show distributors where a device is performing optimally and where improvements can be made. In order to collect the necessary information, the product is subjected to a process predetermined by a given engineering team. This process should consist of multiple aspects ranging from initial research to maintenance analysis in order to provide organisations with a clear understanding of a product’s life cycle and usage. The flow of this process begins with the reception of products which a distributor is considering, tests will then be performed in the lab including endurance testing before reports can be elaborated and the results are then presented once all data has been compiled. In certain cases where there is a lack of expertise or experience, engineers may spend a considerable amount of time weighing options. By choosing to consult with a team who is familiar with industry standards, organisations can reduce the amount of time needed to have the results of a benchmarking analysis in hand.
Product benchmarking allows for a number of possible future complications to be avoided from the outset. Through this process distributors can reduce risks concerning potentially unreliable hardware that can later add on to operations costs, specifically if a product line needs continuous post sales maintenance and eventual product recall. By testing products, engineers can confirm the efficiency of a product and give weight to claims made on paper. Additionally, they are equipped to better understand the repairability and project how Paygo enabled devices can be maintained for the duration of the active contract period. The engineers performing this analysis can gain a clear understanding of product-cost distribution giving investors a more accurate idea of the cost of materials and possible profit margin.
Verification of industry standards compliance is an essential aspect of any Paygo product benchmarking process and while distributors can look to VeraSol for various specifications on a product, the information provided does not cover all data points. Additionally, it is essential to ensure that an appliance is Paygo enabled, meaning that a token protocol has been successfully implemented and the product is compatible with remote activation technologies such as OpenPAYGO Token. When correctly implemented, a Paygo token allows for the lock, unlock, erase and add credit features to function from a remote point. The VeraSol database provides an array of indications pertaining to a product’s compliance to industry standards in terms of security for the end-user experience, but the presentation of this data can be insufficient without the expertise necessary to contextualise it. The relevance of these data points can be put into perspective when presented in conjunction with the results of a product benchmarking analysis.
In order to aptly assess the quality and analyse the potential for return on investments, it is important to weigh the features and performance against industry standards. Doing this allows distributors and investors alike to better understand the novel aspects of the product versus their capability to meet standards that may outlast current trends. The goal is to help organisations assess the potential for longevity on the market.
For field technicians and end users, it’s crucial to assess ease of installation for products, this is another dimension which SolarisLab engineers are attentive to include in final reporting. Given the features of a product of interest, how easily it can be installed when it comes to wall mounting, peripheral cable lengths, switches and PV connection depends in part upon the quality of graphic components included in product packaging. Our engineers focus on the initial unboxing experience an end-user might have by reviewing the included material, the overall attractiveness and the informational reading which accompanies the product. The attention to detail with regard to packaging is also pertinent for Last Mile Distributors where ease of transportation and protection of the hardware is a primary concern.
For the end of a product’s use cycle, we also work toward circular economic action. By understanding the impact that a manufacturer will have in terms of e-waste, emissions and consumption of raw materials, organisations can choose their manufacturing partners with all information at their disposal.
Who is it relevant for?
This service is most relevant for distributors, investors and manufacturers. There are key aspects of this service that apply more acutely to each party, but overall this process is relevant to all actors in the solar energy sector as it serves as a way to remain informed and mitigate investment risk. In short: a key aspect for both investors and distributors is the need to assess possible product performance for profit. However, investors can also consult engineers for benchmarking to confirm that a product’s durability is aligned with what distributors initially proposed. For distributors the purpose is to gather information to better choose products to add to their inventory and for manufacturers benchmarking allows them to measure their work against competitors in order to scale or modify their product ranges. SolarisLab can provide in-depth analysis for organisations seeking these product benchmarking services.
What distributors and investors can expect from SolarisLab
When looking to confirm a device’s potential for profitability, a detailed report permits investors to make better informed decisions about financial placement. This due diligence can help investors identify companies that are well-positioned to benefit from growth opportunities and allocate their capital accordingly.
To accompany distributors during this due diligence phase, SolarisLab engineers have elaborated an exhaustive process through which we are able to deliver complete reports with all relevant points of data. After determining baseline product aspects for benchmarking and defining analysis metrics, we also go through a usage breakdown process which includes unboxing, installation + setup, interface use, PAYG operation, and a complete use cycle. This practice, while not employed by all engineering consultants, contributes to insights on how their target device might be used in comparison with their competitors’. The subsequent steps in our process follow industry standard practices, this includes:
Performance testing (energy consumption, protections)
Internals Analysis (cost breakdown, electronics design)
Process analytical data and metrics
Final considerations and reporting
Additional verification points explored by SolarisLab engineers include, but are not limited to:
> User friendliness for BoP users (verifying that equipment is simple to operate, presence of user documentation, available interface and documentation languages)
> Data collecting capacities and accuracy of sensors and connectivity (Connectivity technologies, reliability, data consumption, costs of transmission to collect data)
> Peripherals assessment (quality testing, performance of peripherals, energy consumption)
> Correct system sizing
> Battery technology (battery quality, lifespan, degradation)
> System performance (according to energy consumption, battery size, available sunlight to recharge batteries, PV size)
> System self diagnosis (capability to provide accurate status information through the interface for better technical maintenance: battery voltage, energy consumption, PV metrics, error messages, alert messages)
> Product’s capacity for internal + external expansion (possibility to add GSM, data-logger, IoT modules under the enclosure, required protocols for expansion + modularity, energy upscaling, adding an AC inverter)
> Teardown process (for recycling and maintenance analysis purposes)
This process in its entirety gives distributors a competitive advantage through improved product knowledge, and understanding the demand can help with inventory management by ensuring they invest in merchandise that meets end-user demand. Having potential products evaluated before purchasing can help to identify specific aspects which can be improved for the purpose of efficient performance. With an established basis of customer needs as well as a more profound understanding of competitors’ market approach, organisations have the necessary tools to make informed purchasing decisions and through the feature comparative analysis they will be better equipped to strategically price their products.
In the case of leading distributors in the sector, we are able to provide an extensive final analysis of the product range they were projecting to add to their portfolio, as we did with Oolu. For another mission, SolarisLab chose a market leader’s SHS to measure the targeted product against. For this process, the attention was particularly focused on battery pack performance and the BMS (battery management system). Distributors or investors may approach engineers with a specific product in mind for feature comparison and in these cases we can benchmark the devices of their choice. Alternatively, we can suggest a set of different devices, presenting their strengths and weaknesses.
During this process, we are able to identify potential for device failure due to short circuiting or diminishing battery lifespan, difficulty to service or recycle the system during and after use which could lead to a surge in workload for LMDs (Last Mile Distributors) and threaten the surety of Paygo operation. Benchmarking devices can assure that they are “field friendly”, this is where our expertise can make a considerable difference by going beyond the information available in shared databases. With the added cost analysis of components, peripherals, packaging, and profit margins LMDs and their investors can make decisions with a well established budget from the outset.
While we focus on tailoring our benchmarking process to the needs of the organisation, there are 5 key stages we complete before producing a final report and offering final considerations. Three of the criteria are centred on an analysis of electronics aspects, product design and cost. Following the results of these initial analyses, we also conduct a feature comparison of the device being considered and its competitor.
Electronic design analysis
When the sample products arrive at the lab, the process begins with electronic design analysis. In this case, we performed battery pack and BMS/PCM analysis before properly analysing the efficiency of both devices.
Product design analysis
Once the electronic design analysis has been completed, there is an inspection of the overall product design. To complete this process, our engineers perform electronic durability tests wherein the PCB is examined closely for overheating risk. Additionally, the output ports are checked for the presence of short circuit protections if they have been put in place. At this stage, any flaws in product design can be noted for the final report. The product overview takes into account the sizing of the SHS system, the packaging itself and the included materials for installation and usage guides. The mechanical durability of the device is also tested along with the user interface, both to assure readiness for end-user handling.
When analysing a set of solar home systems for a distributor in search of a sure, low-risk option, we were able to spot a potential future complication regarding the switching mechanism for one of the potential SHS’s lamps. For this system, if the lamps were not plugged into the correct corresponding DC hub ports and the switch were to be closed, the lamp supply could be shorted causing permanent damage to the IC LED driver. This insight was a key factor in the decision making process for the distributor to male a lower risk choice.
SolarisLab engineers also perform BOM cost analysis in a direct format. We first list the estimated costs for the components which constitute the SHS kit. For each of the items, we first provide a maximum price which is the one obtained from a high-cost fast-shipping supplier. We then share a more “optimised” cost for each item by directly asking a Shenzhen-based supplier for a high-volume pricing quote. For fabricated parts, we estimate based on known costs for parts of similar volume, weight and complexity. Finally, we estimate overall COGS (cost of goods sold).
When we provide the distributors and investors with these cost estimates for BOM and COGS to organisations, we have data to support that SHS 2 is in this case the more cost-effective choice. We were able to identify that SHS 2 represents less of an investment risk, especially when we factor in the results of the product design analysis and the higher estimated margin.
We verify differentiators, connectors and ratings as well as peripherals during this process. Choosing these parameters assists us in the description of various features belonging to each of the devices. Our engineers analyse the MPPT charging algorithm for performance testing purposes, the number of connectors is also verified as it may be a source of confusion and misuse for end-users unsure of where to connect PV-IN or DC-OUT leading to irreparable damage to the device itself.
When comparing features and capacities of SHS A and SHS B in the above table, we accounted for the needs expressed by the distributor Oolu. It was essential for the organisation to select a system with significant power-out capacity that could be used as a source of home lighting. Through feature comparison, our engineers were able to advise the distributor that while SHS B has sufficient power output, the lighting it produces is not strong enough to meet possible client demand as needs evolve from tier 2 SHS to tier 1.
Final considerations and reporting
We consider all noted device flaws which must be changed before commercialising a product as they are also easy to solve on the manufacturer side. In the absence of these considerations, it is highly likely that after-sales services demand will increase on the distributor’s side. After conducting a thorough benchmarking analysis of various solar products, it can be concluded that one product or range of devices are ranked higher in terms of performance and efficiency than a competing brand offering.
Benchmarking is a powerful asset that can help Paygo distributors and their investors stay competitive and assure profits by providing valuable insights into market trends and customer preferences. By conducting regular benchmarking analyses, organisations can identify areas for improvement and make informed decisions about product development, pricing, and marketing strategies. Contact SolarisLab to begin implementing product benchmarking practices, and explore our website to learn more about other services we offer actors in the Paygo sector.
SolarisLab is the team of engineers from Solaris Offgrid with vast experience in the design of electronic products oriented to inclusive energy access around the world, constantly devoted to walking manufacturers across all industries to bring successful essential products to life, from idea to market. We provide product development and design services to manufacturers and distributors across the solar energy sector. If you have an idea for a project or would like to know more about what we can do for your organisation, contact us.