Last year, MAG introduced a vertical gantry fiber placement system for supersized wind energy. The VIPER 7000 system is designed for automated layup of wind turbine blades and other large wind energy parts. According to the company, the VIPER 7000 lays 32 tows of carbon or glass-fiber prepreg tape, utilizing tow widths of 3.25, 6.35 or 12.77 mm to create a total band width up to 16 inches.

Carl LaFrance, vice president of renewable energy for Molded Fiber Glass Companies (MFG) in Ashtabula, Ohio, cites two more market forces that are driving automation: the need to reduce unit cost and to produce different blade models more quickly. “The industry is rapidly coming up with new blade designs,” says LaFrance. “Right now, it takes close to two years from start to finish to bring a new design into production. That needs to be reduced to six to 12 months.”

GE Energy works hand-in-hand with blade suppliers to improve production. “Quality and cost are paramount,” says Steve Johnson, manufacturing engineering manager for GE Energy. “These things have to be driven back into our supply base.”

Automated Processes

GE Energy’s wind blade suppliers have automated four main areas of production, says Johnson. These include cutting fabric, cutting PVC or balsa cores, painting the finished blade and drilling holes for hardware that fastens the blade onto the turbine.

Since MFG began making wind blades in 1988, it has looked for opportunities to automate production. Today, it relies on automation for fabric cutting, core material shaping, painting and finishing. “The real challenge—and the area where we’re doing a lot of research—is in filling the mold,” says LaFrance. “We’re examining the critical technical issues and the enabling technologies to respond to those issues.”

One of those issues is delivery of dry materials. “Do you deliver them as a kit that’s already cut? Does a robot pick them up somewhere?” says LaFrance. “Or does the system cut and lay materials out right on top of the mold?” MFG also is studying how to prevent materials from moving when they place them in the mold or draw the vacuum on the bag. “Those are two big issues,” says LaFrance. “Once we get past those, the rest are probably straightforward.”

For companies interested in automating wind blade production, technical issues aren’t the only concern: capital costs are another primary consideration. “A $5 million machine might be OK if you only have to buy one or two,” says Johnson. “If you have to buy 20 to make the same output as a team of employees doing manual labor, then you’re talking about an enormous amount of capital.”