Fast casting to boost US parts availability

UNITED STATES: A weak link in the US supply chain of massive metal castings will be strengthened next year when Finland-based URV Foundry opens a facility in Michigan.

Wind turbine original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) building in the US import the majority of their castings for hubs and bedplates from China, along with gearbox and generator housings, and source less than 20% domestically, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

But URV, which already provides castings for the wind industry from its European foundries, uses advanced technology to provide rapid solidification of molten metal. This allows a seven-hour cycle instead of the seven days required with traditional cooling methods employed in China and elsewhere.

This process also reduces imperfections that occur when castings cool at much slower rates. "We'll offer superior quality in Michigan for Chinese prices. A ten-tonne casting that costs somewhere north of $20,000 will save freight in the range of $5,000," says James Collins, chief marketing officer for URV USA. "We're making the low-cost Chinese labour irrelevant."

URV partnered with the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which specialises in alloy development, processing and metallurgy. "When you're cooling a large casting over a long period of time, you get a concentration of defects that actually weaken the part," says the laboratory's programme director, Ray Boeman. "If you solidify it more rapidly, then those defects are distributed."

The privately financed Michigan facility will use $7.5 million in state and federal grants, and may qualify for a $500,000 loan from federal Recovery Act funds. Plant capacity plans have already doubled to 80,000 tonnes and may double again by 2014, to employ more than 550 workers and supply two thirds of the North American market.

"Our goal is to provide the proverbial lion's share of wind castings for North America," says Collins. "By the end of the year, we'll have agreements with the major OEMs. Then we'll move on to Asia."

While using old car chassis for raw materials will be part of URV's Michigan strategy, patenting its methods will not. The company believes that published patents are tantamount to giving away proprietary information. "URV has taken the approach of applying the technology that they have today, but with a plan to continue to innovate to keep ahead of the competition," says Dan Radomski, co-founder of Michigan-based consultancy Kinetik Partners. "Frankly, if copied by others, they have the next innovation in the pipeline."

URV's Eaton Rapids foundry will be close to Astreaus Wind Energy, which will use custom-built computerised equipment to reduce machining time from roughly 24 hours to four or five hours per hub.

"When URV marries the advanced casting process and the advanced machining process, it's one of the best success stories I've seen in the domestic supply chain for wind," says Radomski.