SPECIAL REPORT: Innovation in Argentina
A band of “brothers” here is easing the path to badly needed renewable energy systems in the vast remote lands of Argentina and neighboring Uruguay: Juan Pedro Córica founded QMAX Renewable Energies 15 years ago—along with his uncle Juan Jose, his brother Julio and friends Pablo Cassi and Mauro Bertucci. And in the years since, they have found tecnología de la Industria 4.0 essential to their cause of producing affordable electronic devices for solar, wind and hydro energy systems.
They were emboldened by the experience Juan Pedro and his uncle had a few years earlier puzzling out how to cost-effectively bring electricity to Juan Jose’s farm 93 miles from the city.
“In 2000, my uncle bought a small wind turbine, an inverter and a couple of batteries. I’m an electronic engineer, so when the inverter broke down I opened it. I saw the electronics and said, ‘We can do this better. It’s not that sophisticated a technology. It’s a technology we could certainly develop,” said Córica, now executive director of QMAX. “The wind turbine changed the way my uncle was using the farm. Before that, he couldn’t do much because he had to use an engine with oil to have electricity—with a lot of noise and smoke. It was a mess and very expensive.”
The friends and family members felt sure they would succeed with QMAX “because Argentina is very big—with a lot of off-grid applications,” he said.
QMAX, which now employs 24 people, makes “a complete solution for backup at your house”—including an inverter, an MPPT regulator for solar panels and a data logger—that is housed in one cabinet, Córica said. (Playing off of “q” as a common symbol for electric charge in physics, QMAX’s name means “maximum electrical charge.”)
The company has applied automation to its manufacturing facilities.
“We design and build machines for the process of manufacturing our own products,” he said. “We automated the loading of the software to the equipment, as well as all the tests we do on equipment, including quality, loading spikes and shortcuts.”
QMAX uses automation technology from Choma and Fluke, to mention some of them, along with hardware and software it developed in house.
“QMAX’s software includes Tesla-like firmware—that necessarily involves the Internet of Things [IoT],” Córica said.
“In the last update we did to all our inverters, as well as regulators, we changed all the design. So, now you can update the software from the cloud,” he said. “And from the user interface, we built our own application to control all the devices from your cellphone or your tablet. We also created a cloud portal so you have at your fingertips information about all of the parameters we measure on the equipment. So you have the history handy, and you can create alerts and easily monitor all of the equipment.”
QMAX’s customers are typically the integrators that install renewable energy systems. Solartec and Edesur are among them.
“They offer maintenance and monitoring services to the customers,” Córica said. “Through our software platform, they can do that. Our expertise came from an off-grid application, so our products are mostly used in remote areas or areas that have restrictions in terms of access to roads or other things. For our customers that provide this kind of maintenance, it is very important to know exactly what is happening with the equipment before going out, so they know what to do and can go prepared, reducing maintenance costs.”
Telecommunications at mining operations—in Argentina, they are often in the middle of a mountain—is one application. “We have a customer that created a refugee for mining operators. He uses our equipment to have electricity in case of any problems with the mine,” he said.
Of course, integrators of solar panels and wind turbines make up a large part of QMAX’s customer base.
La Aurora, a customer based in Tres Arroyos (Three Streams), operates big silos for the storage of soybean seeds. It previously used oil-and-gas motors to generate power “but now has solar panels and our equipment and is able to run the whole facility with solar,” Córica said. “Another customer uses solar panels and our equipment to make ice cream. We also have small ships that use our equipment to have electricity. And we have several hotels in remote areas of Argentina—in the provinces of Tierra del Fuego and Neuquén—that use our equipment.”
Expansion planned in Latin America
Adoption of smart manufacturing technology by Argentine manufacturers is a mixed bag.
“You have a group that is very advanced. Then you have a group that is in the midst. And finally you have small businesses spread around Argentina that are lagging behind,” he said.
In addition to bringing more Argentine companies along on the smart manufacturing path, QMAX has designs on selling its hardware-software combo to integrators of renewable energy systems in Chile, Colombia and Panama.
“We are working on selling to the whole region—with different teams in different countries, building solutions that combine hardware and software to have better systems,” Córica said. “We believe the future of electricity services will change a lot—that certain parameters we take for granted today, such as paying for consumption and not for power capacity, will change. We would like to build the technology for those new electricity services.”