Traditionally, composite wind turbine rotors are manually assembled. But, manufacturers are eager to automate the process to cut costs, boost productivity and improve quality. Robotics will play an increasingly important role in wind turbine blade manufacturing in the future.
Traditionally, composite wind turbine rotors are manually assembled. But, manufacturers are eager to automate the process to cut costs, boost productivity and improve quality.
However, that’s not an easy task, because blades are big. A single blade can be 40 to 50 meters long and weigh 10,000 to 15,000 pounds. To operate effectively, every rotor blade has to be built within strict tolerance limits. It has to withstand 20 years of harsh conditions in the field and handle speeds up to 200 miles per hour at the tip.
“The blade manufacturing industry mostly relies on manual production,” says Elaine Chan, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan Inc. “But, work is currently being done to develop automated assembly processes for wind turbine blades.”
For instance, a team of researchers at Iowa State University is working with engineers from TPI Composites and Sandia National Laboratories to improve the process currently used to manufacture turbine blades.
The Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Initiative is a three-year, $6.3 million project funded by the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the Iowa Power Fund, a state program to advance energy innovation and independence. As part of the project, a Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory has been established at Iowa State. It is manned by faculty from the school’s aerospace engineering and industrial and manufacturing systems engineering departments.
The researchers’ goal is to develop new, low-cost manufacturing systems that could improve the productivity of turbine blade factories by as much as 35 percent.
“Current manufacturing methods are very labor intensive,” says John Jackman, an associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering. “We need to improve throughput. We need to get more blades produced every week in order for it to be economical to continue to produce wind energy components in the United States.”
Robotics will play an increasingly important role in wind turbine blade manufacturing in the future. For instance, KMT Robotic Solutions Inc. and EINA Estudios de Ingeniería Adaptada, S.L., recently announced a strategic alliance that will offer comprehensive post-mold automation solutions.
“These solutions will combine KMT’s robotic root cutting, drilling and edge trimming technologies with EINA’s robotic surface finishing and quality inspection technologies,” says Kevin McManus, president of KMT Robotic Solutions. “Each company has patented or patent-pending technologies that make using robots for wind turbine blade post-mold processing the right answer for manufacturers looking to expand capacity, handle product change over, overcome ergonomic concerns, and produce the highest quality blades.”
Several aerospace equipment suppliers are actively developing a wide variety of automated solutions. For example, engineers at Quicksilver Innovations LLC have created a gantry robot system that automates blade production. Blade World uses a KUKA robot that is inverted on a telescopic three-axis gantry platform.
Another aerospace supplier, M. Torres, recently initiated a strategic partnership with Gamea, a leading wind turbine manufacturer. The companies are engaged in a joint R&D project to develop an automated blade manufacturing process that will reduce cycle times and slash production costs.
At last year’s American Wind Energy Association trade show in Chicago, MAG Industrial Automation Systems, a leading supplier of composites processing technology for the aerospace industry, unveiled a rapid material placement system. The automated machine can reduce lay-up, infusion and curing time by 50 percent, while boosting quality.
Two gantry machines operating side by side can each produce a 45-meter blade-shell half in less than two hours, with half the manual labor of conventional methods. MAG has also developed a flat charge laminator that automates the production lay-up of composite wind turbine blade parts, such as spares, beams and stringers.