Robotic Innovation Revolutionizes Wind Turbine Blade Manufacturing, Unleashing Potential for Industry Growth

NREL Researchers Leverage Automation to Transform Industry Practices, Boosting Efficiency and Worker Well-being

In a groundbreaking advancement, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have pioneered the integration of robotic assistance in the production of wind turbine blades. This innovative leap promises to eradicate arduous working conditions for human laborers while concurrently enhancing product uniformity.

Despite prior applications of robots in tasks such as painting and polishing within the wind energy sector, widespread automation adoption has remained elusive. However, NREL’s latest endeavor showcases a robot’s proficiency in executing critical post-molding operations including trimming, grinding, and sanding of blades. These pivotal procedures unfold subsequent to the formation and bonding of blade segments.

Hunter Huth, a robotics engineer at NREL and the lead author of the groundbreaking research paper published in the esteemed journal Wind Energy, expressed his satisfaction with the outcome: “I would consider it a success. 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 paper titled “Toolpath Generation for Automated Wind Turbine Blade Finishing Operations” highlights the collaborative efforts of NREL researchers including Casey Nichols, Scott Lambert, Petr Sindler, Derek Berry, David Barnes, Ryan Beach, and David Snowberg.

The manual labor-intensive nature of post-molding operations in wind turbine blade production often entails precarious work environments and necessitates laborers to don protective gear, including respiratory apparatus. The integration of automation, as underscored by the researchers, not only enhances employee safety and welfare but also aids manufacturers in retaining skilled personnel.

Daniel Laird, director of the National Wind Technology Center at NREL, emphasized the broader implications of this breakthrough, stating, “This work is critical to enable significant U.S.-based blade manufacturing for the domestic wind turbine market. Though it may not be obvious, 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 further elucidated on the overarching goal of the research, stressing its pivotal role in rendering domestically manufactured blades globally competitive: “The motive of this research was to develop automation methods that could be used to make domestically manufactured blades cost-competitive globally. Currently, offshore blades are not produced in the U.S. due to high labor rates. The finishing process is very labor-intensive and has a high job-turnover rate due to the harsh nature of the work. By automating the finishing process, domestic offshore blade manufacturing can become more economically viable.”

Conducted at the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology (CoMET) facility on NREL’s Flatirons Campus, the research involved the robotic manipulation of a 5-meter-long blade segment. While wind turbine blades extend considerably longer, the inherent flexibility and deflection of these structures necessitate a sectional approach to robotic manipulation.

Employing a comprehensive array of scans to generate a precise 3D representation of blade positioning, the research team meticulously delineated the front and rear sections of the airfoil—a critical blade component facilitating smooth airflow. Subsequently, the robot was programmed to execute a sequence of tasks, with performance assessed based on accuracy and speed. Identified areas for enhancement primarily revolved around the grinding process, with inconsistencies observed in material removal.

Huth underscored the unparalleled advantages of automated systems in ensuring manufacturing consistency and employing abrasives with greater efficacy: “An automated system would provide consistency in blade manufacturing that is not possible when humans are doing all the work. He also said a robot would be able to use ‘tougher, more aggressive abrasives’ than a human could tolerate.”

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office, this pioneering research epitomizes NREL’s commitment to spearheading innovation in renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. As the primary national laboratory entrusted with advancing renewable energy solutions, NREL’s breakthroughs continue to catalyze transformative progress in the pursuit of a sustainable energy future.