A leap into the future of blades

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Automated production of wind turbine blades in 24-hour shifts, using a workforce just one-third the size of that required by current manufacturing technology, to make perfect blades of high quality at far lower cost than today is the ambitious aim of a research and development project launched by LM Glasfiber in Denmark, backed by a EUR 4.7 million government grant. LM says the initiative represents a quantum leap into the future.

To keep pace with the wind industry's growth, LM must increase blade output by 20% a year, says the company's Steen Broust Nielsen. By 2020, that would require 50,000 workers around the world and many more by 2030. At some point along the way, employment and training of 10,000 staff a year would be necessary.

"Within our existing production parameters we still have big potential for optimisation and improvements that can reduce the need for more staff," says Broust Nielsen. The company last year raised productivity to the extent that blades were produced for an extra 800 MW of turbines, he adds. But meeting future demand requires a new and highly automated approach, the use of new blade technology, improved materials and new moulding methods

In this way LM can reach its goals with 15,000 employees, up from 6000 today. At the same time, product quality will improve and costs and production time will be halved -- all through development of today's known materials and processes rather than the use of new technology. These materials are not in short supply and are available for a considerably lower price than "advanced" materials. Carbon fibre costs ten to 15 times more than glassfibre and requires investment in expensive production units. LM's strategy has given it a unique competitive position, says Broust Nielsen. Even company's like Gamesa, which previously have made blades in-house, are turning to LM, he points out.

Participating in the project, dubbed Blade King, are the university of Aalborg, Danish firm Comfil, a specialist in thermoplastic composites, and the energy research laboratory of Denmark's Technical University (DTU), Risø DTU. Blade King should be fully adopted at LM in seven years, by which time the company will have doubled its production, which last year stood at blades for 4950 MW of turbines.

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