Wind energy is a promising alternative to carbon-based power generation. Likewise, producing parts for wind turbines and related equipment is a promising alternative to automotive and other traditional manufacturing sectors becalmed by the economic slowdown. This was the theme of Mazak USA’s 2009 Schaumburg Technology Days, an event cohosted by the company’s Midwest Headquarters and Techology Center and Machinery Systems, Inc., one Mazak’s largest distributors.
The speakers and presentations were focused on manufacturing opportunities created by this emerging market rather than on the interests of investors or consumers, so the event emphasized some facts and figures metalworking shops and fabricators need to know. Here are a few to ponder:
A typical wind turbine consist of about 8,000 parts. Approximately 90 percent of these parts are steel or steel castings. Some of these are unusually large and therefore create a machining challenge simply because of their size and weight. (Although Mazak’s largest machine, the V140N, wasn’t available for display, it was much talked about.) To minimize part handling, the appropriate machine tool must have both the capacity and the maneuverability to handle this work efficiently. Volumetric accuracy is important because a high percentage of the machine’s work envelope will be used.
Aerospace-like tolerances are characteristic of wind turbine components. About 70 percent of the machining operations on wind turbine components can be handled with standard cutting tools and inserts. Most wind turbines follow designs developed in Europe and comply with international standards, so metric dimensions predominate.
It’s a large playing field and not very crowded. Only two dozen or so companies are producing tower sections. Only 11 companies are making blades. As few as four companies are producing gearboxes, which are currently a major bottleneck. However, the American Wind Energy Association (www.awea.org) believes that as many as 16,000 North American companies are capable of producing the thousands of other components.
Many existing suppliers to the industry have dedicated facilities and close relationships with their customers. For newcomers, establishing these ties is as important as developing production capability.
The surge in turbine construction is also creating indirect opportunities for manufacturers. For example, mobile cranes large enough to erect wind turbines are in short supply. Likewise, power transmission lines are underdeveloped in regions with the most potential wind energy (the northern and western states).
Should job shops jump into wind energy? They should take a close look at it. Better yet, they should develop a "diversification strategy" that prepares them for opportunities no matter which way the market winds blow. Mazak, by the way, stressed this strategy as part of the case for flexible automation. The company’s Palletech systems and Variaxis machines were mentioned as good examples. Regardless of whose technology a shop chooses, being differentiated on the basis of market readiness is wise advice.