The Future of Wind Turbine Blade Manufacturing

The Future of Wind Turbine Blade Manufacturing

Manufacturing wind turbine blades has traditionally been a labor-intensive process, requiring workers to endure difficult working conditions such as perching on scaffolding and wearing protective suits. However, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have recently made significant strides in leveraging robotic assistance to streamline the manufacturing process, ultimately improving product consistency and worker safety.

The use of robots in the wind energy industry is not a new concept, with robots commonly employed for painting and polishing blades. However, the automation of other manufacturing processes has not been widely adopted. The research conducted at NREL has demonstrated the potential for robots to handle tasks such as trimming, grinding, and sanding blades, steps that occur after the two sides of the blade are made using a mold and then bonded together.

Hunter Huth, a robotics engineer at NREL and lead author of the research paper, highlighted the success of using robots in blade manufacturing. While acknowledging that not everything operated as smoothly as desired, Huth expressed confidence in the lessons learned and the potential for robots to meet or exceed expectations. The automation of post-molding operations not only improves product consistency but also enhances employee safety and well-being, reducing the need for workers to endure harsh working conditions.

Daniel Laird, director of the National Wind Technology Center at NREL, emphasized the economic significance of automating blade manufacturing processes. By making domestically manufactured blades more cost-competitive globally, automation can potentially create more U.S.-based jobs and stimulate growth in the wind turbine market. Currently, offshore blades are not produced in the U.S. due to high labor costs, but automation could make domestic blade manufacturing economically viable.

The research conducted at the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology (CoMET) facility at NREL’s Flatirons Campus involved using a robot to work on a 5-meter-long blade segment. While wind turbine blades are typically longer, the researchers found that robots could be programmed to work on larger blades section by section. By using scans to create a 3D representation of the blade and identifying key sections, the team successfully programmed the robot to perform tasks with a focus on accuracy and speed.

One of the key challenges identified during the research was the need for improvement in grinding processes. The robot tended to grind down some parts of the blade too much while not doing enough in others, highlighting the importance of fine-tuning automation systems. Despite these challenges, the potential for robots to provide consistency in blade manufacturing and use more aggressive abrasives compared to humans shows promise for the future of the industry.

The research conducted at NREL signals a significant shift in wind turbine blade manufacturing towards greater automation and robotics integration. By addressing key challenges, such as improving grinding processes and ensuring product consistency, researchers are paving the way for more efficient, cost-competitive, and safer blade manufacturing processes. The future of wind energy looks brighter with the advancements made in leveraging robotic assistance for blade manufacturing.

Technology

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