Iowa State University researchers are working with researchers from Scottsdale, Arizona-based blade supplier TPI Composites and the US Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to improve the process currently used to manufacture turbine blades.
The researchers’ work is supported by a three-year $6.3m (£3.77m) project called the ‘Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Initiative’. One-third of the project’s funding is from the Iowa Power Fund, a state programme to advance energy innovation and independence. TPI Composites and the US Department of Energy are also providing equal shares of funding.
The grant will allow Iowa State to establish a Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory on the university campus where Profs Matt Frank, Frank Peters and John Jackman, and associate professor Vinay Dayal will develop new, low-cost manufacturing systems that could improve the productivity of turbine blade factories by as much as 35 per cent.
‘The current manufacturing methods are very labour intensive,’ Jackman said. ‘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 US.’
Peters said possible manufacturing improvements include developments in automation and quality control.
He added that Iowa State’s new lab will initially work with smaller versions of the moulds used to manufacture fibreglass turbine blades. The lab will allow the researchers to study blade manufacturing in a controlled setting while they look for ways to boost efficiency. Eventually, the lab could also study the manufacturing of wind towers, the nacelles that sit atop the towers, gearboxes and other wind energy components.
Dayal, who’s also a faculty associate with Iowa State’s Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, said the lab will look at developing new ways for manufacturers to inspect blades without taking them apart. Faster, better inspections are another way to improve factory efficiency and blade reliability.