I’m Tim Shinbara and have joined AMT to help everyone better understand technology developments occurring around the world. I am back this month to continue a discussion on “disruptive” technologies.
There are times where it is not one specific technology that causes a disruption to the normal way of doing business, but instead it is a novel integration and application of a suite of technologies. The term in situ manufacturing is one such example, positioned rather interestingly within wind turbine manufacturing. Recently, I talked with George “Nick” Bullen, FSME, CPIM, the CEO of Smart Blades, Inc. He has managed to integrate aerospace composite technologies, structural health monitoring technologies and modular manufacturing for application in the wind turbine industry.
Traditional wind turbine design uses epoxy-based composites for blade manufacture because they deliver a key combination of environmental, production and cost advantages over other resin systems. Epoxies also improve wind turbine blade composite manufacture by allowing for shorter cure cycles, increased durability and improved surface finish. However, all of these manufacturers use brick and mortar fixed factories to fabricate and ship blades manufactured using a common process called liquid resin infusion. The process of liquid resin infusion is labor intensive and limits the application of automation in the manufacturing process, restricts economic use of embedded sensors and reduces the use of flexible manufacturing systems.
Bullen’s approach incorporates nano-coatings and deicing bladders that shed moisture and ice, as well as advanced wireless sensors that will obtain an improved picture of the dynamics of the blade in real-time and feed data to a quantitative multivariable control system. Manufacturing the advanced composite structure exploits new automated tape laying processes and out-of-autoclave material resins that allow embedded wireless sensors, as well as supporting aero-elastic tailoring (based on air vehicle designs that passively reduce strain at tips and edges at high wind speed).
With the growth in size of turbine blades, an in situ manufacturing system for large composite structures enables such capabilities to be packaged and transported to the installation site where blades would be manufactured and assembled with generators. Then the factory would be broken down and transported to the next farm for setup and blade manufacture. Site manufacture saves transport costs for large blades and incentivizes local monetary contribution.
As a way to better understand the deployment challenges of manufacturing technologies, allow me to quickly define and reference Manufacturing Readiness Levels (MRL). An MRL is a Department of Defense tool that allows technologies to be evaluated with manufacturing insertion in mind. As you mature in MRL (from 1 – 10) you are moving from research and development (MRL 1 – 4) to production (MRL 8 – 10). The previously mentioned diverse technologies that currently come from universities and industry have been proven independently and represent MRLs that are in the 6 – 7 range. Taking these independently developed and matured technologies and combining them in a unique way would reduce their collective MRL level to a 3, and Bullen is working on maturing this modular manufacturing concept to MRL 6+ for implementation.
For more information about this series contact me at tshinbara@AMTonline.org or phone at 703-827-5243.