GE Energy is one of the top three wind turbine suppliers in the world. According to the company, half of the wind turbines installed in the U. S. are GE turbines. The businesses that comprise GE Energy, which had 2011 revenues of nearly $44 billion, include GE Power & Water, GE Energy Management and GE Oil & Gas. Composites Manufacturing magazine spoke with Steve Johnson about the wind energy market and wind blade production.

Steve Johnson Manufacturing Engineering Manager, GE Energy

Steve Johnson Manufacturing Engineering Manager, GE Energy

What trends do you see in the wind energy marketplace?

Customers are always interested in more reliability and better cost. In the end, it really boils down to can they get more electricity produced by their wind turbines for a lower cost.

How do you determine the viability of a wind project?

Once you know what the wind patterns are—how much wind is going to blow, its variability, seasonality—it’s very possible to get a good, solid cash-flow analysis that will predict the viability of a project. At GE Energy, we focus on driving the quality of the product we manufacture to continuously make it better and more reliable. We strive for the absolute lowest down time so whenever the wind is blowing, we want that machine to be generating electricity.

What is GE Energy’s product portfolio in the wind industry?

Currently we have three product platforms in our portfolio. The platforms include our 1.5 to 1.6 megawat (MW), 2.5MW to 2.75MW and our 4.1MW offshore wind turbine. Our 1.5 to 1.6 MW units are our biggest sellers in the United States. There are some different models in the 1.5 to 1.6 platform, with blade sizes ranging up to a 100-meter diameter. Some of these models have various hub heights and offer options for cold weather, seismic and condition monitoring solutions.

How can automation benefit wind blade production?

That’s a very difficult equation. Wind blade production is very different than aerospace, for example, that works largely with carbon because of the benefits from the weight-to-strength ratio. Automation really pays off there because of the difficulty of working with carbon. Blades, on the other hand, are almost universally built with glass fiber. They are built with vacuum-assisted resin technology as opposed to automated fiber placement or other techniques good for carbon. Because cost is so important in our product, automation plays more of a role in driving quality improvement than cost.

Where do your suppliers use automation in the manufacture of wind blades?

We see automation in fabric cutting—core material cutting because we use sandwich core construction—and in robotic finishing and painting. Those are areas where we can drive quality and where the automation equipment is not very expensive. Those pieces of equipment are readily available and cost under $100,000. If you start talking about the kinds of equipment you see in the aerospace world for using carbons, machines start at $1 million and go up rapidly.

So aside from the capital investment, what other challenges to automation exist?

Blades are complex structures: A completed blade has outer layers of glass and several hundred pieces of core material of different shapes and sizes all placed into a mold and infused and so on. That’s a very difficult challenge to solve for automation. A person is very flexible, adaptable and dexterous. A person can be pretty effective at placing materials at the bottom of a mold. The blade industry has good, talented teams.

I understand GE Energy expects to ship more than 3,000 wind turbines this year. That’s 9,000 blades. Good news for your suppliers, right?

If you were to lay a wind turbine on top of the largest plane made today, they about match because of the diameter and size of the blade. We use a lot of composite material and we’re going to need a lot more this year.