NREL’s Robotic Leap in Wind Turbine Blade Manufacturing

nrel researcher hunter huth stands beneath a robotic arm designed to automate a portion of the blade manufacturing process.

Pioneering safety and precision: NREL's robotic revolution transforms wind turbine blade manufacturing, ushering in a new era of innovation and reliability. (Credit: Werner Slocum, NREL)

by | May 3, 2024

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At the forefront of innovation, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers have pioneered a significant advancement in robotic-assisted wind turbine blade manufacturing. Prioritizing worker safety by eliminating hazardous working conditions signifies a pivotal step toward elevating product consistency.

Despite robots being employed in tasks like painting and polishing within the wind energy sector, their adoption for broader automation has been limited. However, recent research at NREL showcases the capability of robots to undertake critical tasks such as trimming, grinding, and sanding of wind turbine blades. These operations are vital post-molding steps following the fabrication of blade sides using molds and subsequent bonding.

Why is this Innovative Research Essential?

Traditionally, workers have faced challenging conditions while performing post-molding operations on wind turbine blades. These tasks involve trimming, grinding, and sanding, often requiring workers to perch on scaffolding, wear protective gear, and endure harsh environments. By introducing robots to handle these tasks, the safety of workers is significantly improved. Robots can perform repetitive and physically demanding work without risking human health.

Robotic automation ensures consistent product quality. Unlike humans, robots do not experience fatigue or variations in performance. Each blade segment receives the same level of precision, resulting in better overall blade quality. Consistency is crucial for wind turbine efficiency and reliability. Uniformly manufactured blades lead to optimal energy capture and reduced maintenance costs.

Offshore wind turbine blades are not currently manufactured in the U.S. due to the high labor costs of finishing work. By automating the finishing process, domestic offshore blade manufacturing becomes economically viable. This development could lead to a boost in the U.S. wind energy industry and job creation.

Wind energy is a clean and renewable resource. By streamlining blade production, we contribute to a more sustainable future. Additionally, reducing the reliance on imported blades minimizes the carbon footprint associated with transportation.

The Researchers Behind the Study

Hunter Huth, a robotics engineer at NREL and lead author of the research paper, considers the project a success, stating, “Not everything operated as well as we wanted it to, but we learned all the lessons we think we need to make it meet or exceed our expectations.”

The findings of this research, titled “Toolpath Generation for Automated Wind Turbine Blade Finishing Operations,” have been published in the journal Wind Energy. Co-authored by a team from NREL, including Casey Nichols, Scott Lambert, Petr Sindler, Derek Berry, David Barnes, Ryan Beach, and David Snowberg, the paper highlights the potential of robotic automation in revolutionizing blade manufacturing.

Daniel Laird, director of the National Wind Technology Center at NREL, emphasized the significance of this research in bolstering U.S.-based blade manufacturing for the domestic wind turbine market. He noted, “Automating some of the labor in blade manufacture can lead to more U.S. jobs because it improves the economics of domestic blades versus imported blades.”

Huth reiterated the motive behind the research, emphasizing the need to develop automation methods to make domestically manufactured blades globally cost-competitive. He stated, “Domestic offshore blade manufacturing can become more economically viable by automating the finishing process.”

Further Research is Needed

Conducted at the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology (CoMET) facility at NREL’s Flatirons Campus, the research focused on a 5-meter-long blade segment. While wind turbine blades are longer, the bending and deflection under their weight necessitate programming robots to work on larger blades section by section.

The team emphasized that an automated system ensures consistency in blade manufacturing, surpassing what humans can achieve. Additionally, robots can utilize harsher abrasives, enhancing efficiency. The process scans, plans, and executes movements efficiently by employing precise measurement systems. Researchers stressed the importance of integrating real-time planning to further optimize the process.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office, this research represents a significant step in enhancing wind turbine blade manufacturing through robotic assistance.

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