Milbank On the Move

March 1, 2011
Milbank teams with AeroVironment to add EV charging systems to its PowerGen line.

Milbank Manufacturing, Kansas City, Mo., announced an agreement with AeroVironment Inc. (AV), Monrovia, Calif., under which Milbank will market AeroVironment's line of electric-vehicle charging systems under the Milbank PowerGen brand through its network of independent manufacturers' reps and electrical distributors.

The move is part of a broader effort by Milbank to flesh out its PowerGen lineup to cover a wide range of renewable power systems and the controls to make them work, says Lavon Winkler, Milbank's president and chief executive officer. Milbank is doing this through a combination of partnerships with niche manufacturers and product development firms.

What once seemed like a sleepy old-line niche maker of meter sockets has moved over the past year-and-a-half to position itself as a renewable-energy specialist, adding generators, standby power systems, small-scale wind turbines and now electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) to the PowerGen line, and the company is working on adding solar and power-control to its offerings.

“This is part of a multi-faceted strategy we developed a year and a half ago. We want to focus on renewable, green products and bring them all under one umbrella, under the Milbank PowerGen label,” Winkler told Electrical Marketing. He sees EVSE as a huge opportunity, based not just on the recently introduced Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, but on the plans other vehicle manufacturers have announced to roll out EV models. “We're in the early part of what we think is going to be a significant growth curve. We wanted to be part of that, rather than stand back and watch.”

Milbank expects to have its PowerGen-branded chargers in the market by the end of March. It's starting out with four of AeroVironment's Level 2 and Level 3 EV charging station models aimed at home, office, retail complex, fleet yard and construction-site applications.

To support the roll-out, the company is gathering distributors in early March at its new research, development and training facility (a renovated production facility now complete with a UL-certified testing lab and rapid-prototyping equipment), for four days of training on the systems. Winkler sees electrical distributors and contractors as the most important channel for getting EVSE products into the market.

“We have an incredible sales and distribution network. It's taken us decades to put that in place,” Winkler says. “As we align with AV and similar companies, we can marry the best of both worlds. AV has brilliant scientists and inventors, they've spent a lot of money and effort developing products, but they don't have the sales and distribution infrastructure.”

Milbank's distribution network will give electrical contractors throughout the nation access to AeroVironment's leading EV charging products to support all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles. EV and hybrid-electric drivers will also gain access to these products through major home improvement retailers served by Milbank.

AeroVironment's smart charging station is compatible with the Smart Grid and capable of interacting with utilities to help manage the potential impact of EVs on the electric grid. This capability plays to the broader vision Winkler and the rest of Milbank's management team have for the PowerGen brand.

The company introduced another part of the puzzle in early February at the DistribuTECH conference — a modular integrated automatic transfer switch (IATS) it's developing with U.K.-based Sentech. The IATS provides the connections, switching and intelligence to manage power and information from the grid, solar-power systems, wind-power systems, standby generators and EV charging systems and match it with changing loads to achieve an optimum balance of input and output, Winkler says.

The IATS product was introduced at DistribuTECH in its alpha-test form. Based on feedback gathered from utility engineers at the show, Milbank expects to have a beta model by mid-year and to be in production by year's end.

Milbank began looking for a partner for EV equipment more than a year ago, Winkler says. AeroVironment, which also makes specialized unmanned aircraft for the military market, was an early entrant in the EVSE market. Its chargers were selected by Nissan for home-charging its Leaf EV and by NRG Energy to build out an EVSE “ecosystem” in Houston.

Initially, Milbank will offer four models of EV charging stations:

  • MEVSE-RS Level 2 charging dock for home and business

  • Dual- and quad-port MEVSE-RS configurations that charge two and four EVs from a single utility connection

  • MEVSE-RS+ smart charging dock, which enables communication with the grid to turn drivers' homes into grid-connected smart charging hubs

  • CHAdeMO-certified Level 3 DC EV50-PS and EV50-FS, which recharge vehicles in minutes instead of hours

In joining the EVSE game, Milbank is going head-to-head with some of the largest electrical conglomerates in the world, but that's nothing new for Milbank. Winkler likes the company's chances.

“AeroVironment has invested an unbelievable amount of capital in development of Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 charging systems. These are just amazing pieces of equipment,” Winkler says. “We may be the underdog because of the size of the company, but we're going to market with a very substantial and reputable partner.”

It's the same strategy that brought Milbank a partnership with Briggs & Stratton in July 2009 to create a line of PowerGen branded portable generators and a partnership with Vancouver Endurance wind-power turbines last year. Solar is next on his list.

When we spoke with Winkler, the company had just commissioned the installation of a wind-power turbine on its new training facility near downtown Kansas City, on an blustery winter day. Winkler said the turbine was spinning like mad, and that he was looking forward to showing it off to Milbank distributors when they gathered there for training this month.