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Paving the Way for Automation in Wind Turbine Blade Manufacturing

Paving the Way for Automation in Wind Turbine Blade Manufacturing

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have made significant progress in automating the manufacturing of wind turbine blades. By involving robotics, challenging working conditions for labourers are alleviated and there is potential to enhance the overall consistency of the product.

To date, the wind energy sector has been using automation, mainly robots, to carry out tasks like painting and polishing blades. However, the adoption of automation technology within the industry has been quite limited. The research at NREL demonstrates the ability of robots to perform numerous hitherto manual tasks like trimming, grinding, and sanding blades. These tasks are typically carried out after the two halves of the blade have been manufactured using a mould before being adhered together.

Hunter Huth, a robotics engineer at NREL and the lead author of the research paper detailing this autonomous process, said, "Not everything operated as well as we wanted it to, but we learned all the necessary lessons we think we need to make it meet or exceed our expectations.” The details of the research can be found in the paper, "Toolpath Generation for Automated Wind Turbine Blade Finishing Operations," published in the journal Wind Energy.

The conventional manual process of manufacturing wind turbine blades often involves difficult working conditions. Workers typically have to work at great heights on scaffolding while wearing protective gear, this includes respiratory equipment. Automating these operations will not only ensure the well-being and safety of employees but can also aid manufacturers in retaining skilled labour.

Automation could be a tremendous boost to U.S.-based blade manufacturing catered to the domestic wind turbine market. Contrary to apparent belief, automating some aspects of blade manufacture could pave the way for more jobs in the U.S. It could improve the economic feasibility of domestically manufactured blades over imported ones. The ultimate goal of this research was to develop automation methodologies that would make domestically manufactured blades cost-competitive globally.

We must note that while the study involved a 5-meter-long blade segment, blade segments for wind turbine blades could be much longer. Given their size and weight, they bend and deflect under their own weight and would require different handling by a robot. The team created a 3D representation of the blade’s position and accurately determined the front and rear sections of the airfoil from a series of scans. The robot’s tasks were then programmed, and it was subsequently assessed on the basis of speed and accuracy.

The team realized that there were areas for improvement, particularly with regard to the grinding task. The robot ended up grinding down too much in certain sections of the blade and not enough in other sections. Despite these hitches along the way, it is clear that robotic assistance offers consistency that manual labour cannot guarantee. Furthermore, a robot would be able to accomplish tasks involving harsher abrasives which may not be humanly possible to handle.

Disclaimer: The above article was written with the assistance of AI. The original sources can be found on ScienceDaily.