I’ve been doing a lot of research into the energy industry recently, particularly the wind power vertical. And I’m convinced we are on the cusp of a wind energy revolution. The cost of wind power is in free-fall, and so-called ‘grid-parity’ – when the cost of wind energy matches conventional electricity – is being achieved in many countries.
In March, US media firm Bloomberg reported build costs for offshore wind farms in Europe have fallen 46% since 2012. Meanwhile, in April, the UK went for a full day without using coal to generate electricity: the country’s first coal-free day since the 1880s! A key reason this was possible is the UK’s recent huge growth in wind energy capacity.
Wind energy is big business, and it’s growing fast. Global installed capacity is over 487 GW, and over half of this has been added in the last five years. Clearly, the winds of change are blowing through the energy industry.
So, what does this mean for turbine manufacturers?
The Challenge for Wind Blades Manufacturers
I think the fast growth in wind energy is incredibly exciting for wind turbine OEMs and their suppliers. But it also presents challenges. Over the past 30 years, blades have grown 15 times in size. In the future, blade manufacturers must prepare for blades to get even bigger. Blade manufacturers also face issues because blades use a lot of composites. In fact, the wind industry is one of the largest consumers of composite materials. Bigger blades are heavier, so there is constant demand for lighter, more durable composites.
Research engineers and scientists in the industry are constantly innovating to meet this demand, and their cutting-edge work means new composites for blades are becoming available all the time. Such advanced composites are expensive, and leave no room for inefficiencies and waste in the manufacturing process.
Some of the modern blade factories I’ve visited use some incredibly smart technology. But, at even the newest factories, blades are still largely made by hand. In many cases, blades are reinforced by layers of fiberglass that are hand-laid, and hand smoothed. There are good reasons why there’s so much human involvement in blade manufacturing, but it means there is potential for human errors and inefficiencies. To get costs down, blade manufacturers need to gain oversight of all their manufacturing processes, see the big picture, correlate data between the shop floor and overall enterprise planning to optimize production and create a truly effective operation.
But how is this possible?
Connecting the Factory Dots
In order for blade factories to reach their potential, manufacturers need to place special emphasis on more sophisticated, connected data on the plant floor. This is where optimization software comes in. Advanced software can harness the potential of the internet of things (IoT) and AI algorithms, bringing their massive benefits to the wind industry. Manufacturers often assume increased production will result in economies of scale. Factories that increase production often find they simultaneously become less efficient due to a loss of process control.
As production volumes increase, it’s important that turbine manufacturers ensure they put the best processes in place to deal with the workload efficiently. IoT cloud-based software works with existing production infrastructure to improve processes. In other words, it can be applied without requiring any retooling or modifications to existing production lines.
The goal is to make plants more transparent and to provide management with comprehensive production quality-reporting information. Quality control is improved by maintaining traceability from raw material to end product. Visibility is enhanced because assets can be tracked in real-time using RFID and other sensors. Meanwhile, rework and waste is reduced with cut plan optimization done by advanced artificial intelligence algorithms. These algorithms can find the optimal balance between material savings and speed of operations. Using sectional nesting techniques allows substantial material savings while minimizing the impact on the kitting process and other operational aspects.
Some turbine manufacturers are even starting to use intelligent software to create a ‘Digital Twin’ – a digital representation of an asset using real-time data – for every turbine they have built and installed in the field. Allowing for predictive maintenance and enhanced production. As turbine manufacturers increase production volumes, the implementation of IoT technology will reduce costs, save time, cut waste and, ultimately, deliver savings of millions of dollars per year.
The digital twin is only one element of the industrial internet of things, but it’s potential is revolutionary.
Think about that for a moment: if all wind farms eventually adopt the Digital Twin concept (and it’s likely they will because the benefits are clear), every turbine in the world would have a digital replica in the cloud – with its entire operational history on record. Just imagine if you had suggested such a thing was possible to an industrialist from 50 years ago…
The Future of the ‘Factory of the Future’
The future for the wind turbine industry is clear: end users will demand ever-increasing volumes at ever-lower prices. This must be achieved without compromising quality, hence, by adopting innovative technologies and manufacturing optimization software. Turbine manufactures, from small to large, will rely on data collected from the plant floor that they can actually use to drive meaningful results.
Widespread adoption of IoT technology is inevitable and, in the long run, it will become a necessity for the survival of wind turbine companies. The potential benefits of IoT for wind turbine manufacturers are huge.
Early adopters will reap those benefits today.
Author: Avner Ben-Bassat, President and CEO