A 3-year, $6.3 million dollar project to improve every aspect of the American wind turbine production process/industry was recently begun via a partnership between Sandia National Laboratories, Iowa State University, and TPI Composites (an operator of a wind turbine blade factory).
The project — the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Initiative — aims, specifically, to improve the labor productivity of blade fabrication and finishing, thereby helping to lower the cost of American-made blades and make them cost-competitive with foreign-produced ones.
The “project” is actually a collection of 22 “mini-projects” accepted from amongst 49 proposals. These mini-projects are each focused on improving highly specific portions of the production process, such as the development of automated laying and finishing, the use of simulation to develop more efficient manufacturing process flows, and the development of improved nondestructive inspection (NDI) capabilities — together representing a near-complete attempt to improve the whole of the process.
“Wind turbine blade manufacturing consists of a labor-intensive set of highly distributed manual operations including layup of very high volumes of material, infusion, secondary bonding and demolding for many sub-assemblies over a vast manufacturing floor area. All of these considerations make implementation of automation a challenging and expensive endeavor,” explained Sandia manager Daniel Laird.
The press release provides an overview of some of the projects:
In one project, Sandia researcher Diane Callow created a factory logic model of the manufacturing plant, allowing researchers to look at process flows and ways to improve product velocity. This work immediately identified and quantified bottlenecks due to an overhead bridge crane. The problems were solved by developing novel, ground-based carts.
In another AMII effort, researchers coupled an engineering data software platform to a 3-D laser projection system to improve fiberglass fabric positioning. Researchers also modeled the curing of a higher-performance spar cap, the part of the blade that carries the bending load.
Sandia senior researcher Dennis Roach led development of a reference sample library used to train those who perform nondestructive inspection of wind turbine blades.
“The NDI project improved the ability of blade manufacturers to confidently determine the quality of their product before it leaves the factory, enhancing the in-service life of the blades. Sandia not only worked to optimize the performance of conventional inspection processes but also developed advanced NDI methods to further improve the quality assurance process. A focused technology transfer aspect of AMII allowed these advanced NDI methods to begin their integration into US blade manufacturing plants,” Roach said. “The combined AMII improvements and innovations reduced the cycle time to manufacture a blade by nearly 50%.”
While improvements significant enough to completely undercut the foreign-produced market will certainly be difficult to come by, you have to start somewhere, and this seems like an excellent place.
Image Credit: Randy Montoya