Fraunhofer to Create Automation Process for Rotor Blade Production

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology (IWES) have launched a project to automate the process of manufacturing rotor blades wind turbines in an effort to reduce production costs by more than 10 percent.

Using an $8 million euro (about $11 million US) investment from German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Reactor Safety, scientists at the German research facility will work alongside research partners to analyze the current, mainly manual process of producing wind-turbine blades through the BladeMaker project to assess the potential for automation, Florian Sayer, department chief of Fraunhofer IWES' rotor blade competence center, told Design News.

"It is obvious at the moment that it is a very labor-intensive project, and reducing labor efforts by automated technology could reduce the cost," he said. "It is also very challenging to actually develop such systems and processes."

Because the production of the rotor is about 25 percent of the entire production of a wind turbine, researchers think that by cutting the cost of this process, they can significantly cut the entire production cost of turbines themselves. Sayer said a 10 percent reduction in the manufacturing cost represents about 10,000 euros (about $13,000 US) in savings per blade.

Wind turbines increasingly are being used as a
green energy source, and Germany is one of the leading countries to invest in the technology. The US and other countries in Europe -- including France, Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom -- also are adoption leaders.

The current method for rotor-blade production is by a vacuum-infusion process in which two molds -- one each of each half of the blade -- are reinforced with fiberglass or carbon-fiber matting. Currently, workers do this process nearly entirely by hand, generating a vacuum and injecting resin to bond the mats. Once hardened, another manual process blends the two halves of the blade, which is then varnished.

One blade usually takes about a day to manufacture, Sayer said, but it's more cost cutting than a reduction in the time it takes to build a rotor that the BladeMaker project aims to achieve. "Reducing cycle times is always an issue, but in the end it's the cost we want to reduce," he said.

As part of the project, Fraunhofer will develop a lab to act as a proving ground for automation technologies and processes that could be viable in the production of rotor blades. This has been one stumbling block to an investment in automation by blade manufacturers, Sayer told us. "Blade manufacturers are not investing in automation because they need to make 100 percent sure that the systems actually work."

Project partners will analyze and assess a number of processes and factors in the manufacturing process -- including fiber placements, mold creation, the use of new materials, and the overall design of the blades -- to see how they can be adapted or, if necessary, adapted to an automation process, Sayer said.

Industry partners in the project include rotor manufacturers SINOI and REPower Systems AG, automation provider Siemens AG, and the University of Bremen, among 13 others. The project will conclude its work at the end of September 2017.

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