Work the Wind

Aug. 12, 2009
Hodge Foundry’s manufacturing capacity for casting wind turbine components originated from work for the mining industry. Shops manufacturing components for wind turbine OEMs seem to have one thing in common: they already have in place ...
Hodge Foundry’s manufacturing capacity for casting wind turbine components originated from work for the mining industry.

Shops manufacturing components for wind turbine OEMs seem to have one thing in common: they already have in place core capabilities that closely match what the wind industry requires. But often, what differs among these shops is where those “wind capabilities” originated.

At a recent American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) seminar, it was stated that shops with previous experience supplying parts to the automotive industry, among others, typically make an easy transition into manufacturing wind turbine components. AFCO Precision Manufacturing is a shop that agrees.

AFCO Precision Manufacturing progressed from automotive to wind turbine work after realizing automotive work levels were not going to remain steady. It decided to diversify by adding more contract machining, while still producing for its OEM side of the business, Automatic Feed Co., which designs and builds coil processing equipment for the Big Three and several foreign automakers.

The shop got into the wind turbine segment initially by doing some contract machining. A lot of the supply work was indirect, but the parts eventually made their way to wind turbine builders. Simultaneously, it formed internal initiative groups to investigate different markets wherein it might be competitive, and wind turbine work was a focus. AFCO Precision Manufacturing grew out of one of those internal groups.

“We realized the wind turbine industry paralleled the automotive industry as far as the need for quality, on-time deliveries and current manufacturing capacities were concerned. And as it was, we were quite well suited to progress into the wind turbine industry,” said Jeffry Stover, director of project management, purchasing and outsourcing at AFCO Precision Manufacturing.

Stover said that winning wind work is an on-going process, and frequently what gets them “in the door” is happenstance. Often, companies already established in the wind industry will subcontract work to AFCO Precision Manufacturing, and through these relationships, the shop gets more work.

One of these relationships resulted in the shop working with Green Energy, a U.S. company that manufactures the “wind cube,” a wind turbine that can accelerate the wind. It’s targeted for urban settings, such as rooftops.

Green Energy is now one of AFCO Precision Manufacturing’s biggest potential customers. Now the shop has its sights set on builders of mid-wind and utility grades of turbines and is quoting several jobs for foreign turbine builders with facilities in the United States.

About 20 percent of AFCO Precision Manufacturing’s overall sales derive from wind work, and the shop has only been in the industry for a little over 18 months. But, the potential for growth is there, said Stover.

He added that there was one difference between working with the automotive industry and the wind turbine industry. That is the shop’s reputation.

“We are a highly recognized company in the automotive industry, but we had to re-establish ourselves as far as the wind turbine industry was concerned. Establishing AFCO Precision Manufacturing is how we are accomplishing that,” Stover said.

With existing construction experience and manufacturing facilities, building wind turbine towers was a natural and strategic move for T. Bailey.

At this point, the shop’s most notable asset for wind turbine work is its large manufacturing equipment. For example, it has a boring mill that is 16 ft on the vertical by 40 ft on the horizontal, along with ample floorspace, a dedicated 52,000-sq-ft assembly bay and a 80-ton lifting capacity to handle large, heavy wind turbine parts such as those for nacelles, generators and gearboxes.

In addition to its established core capabilities, AFCO Precision Manufacturing worked closely with trade associations, including the Great Lakes Wind Network (GLWN). This industrybased network of manufacturers and suppliers dedicated to serving the needs of the global wind market by growing the supply chain conducted an assessment of AFCO Precision Manufacturing’s capabilities, and how those would fit into wind turbine work. (The association will do the same for any shop interested in entering the wind energy market.) GLWN categorized AFCO Precision Manufacturing as a tier one supplier, as far as capacity is concerned.

“Such a categorization is flattering and makes for a good showing for potential wind turbine customers, but we still have to prove ourselves, much like we had to in the automotive market. The automotive industry is a tough field to break into, and the wind turbine industry is just as much of a challenge, but we’re used to such challenges,” said Stover.

To meet the challenge, Stover listed a few practices that have helped at AFCO Precision Manufacturing. He said that shops need to be patient: getting into wind work is not going to happen overnight. And, shops should “do their homework” and be very observant of how the “wind system” works.

He also pointed out that networking is extremely important in the wind industry, and that his shop takes full advantage of joining associations such as GLWN, AWEA and The Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT). He also re-emphasized the importance of capacity.

“You can’t tell a potential wind customer that if they give you an order, you’ll expand to complete it. Wind turbine manufacturing companies look at what your capacity is right now,” he said.

At Hodge Foundry, manufacturing capacity for wind turbine components originated from the shop’s work for the mining industry. It casts turbine blade hubs, gearbox housings and support bases that attach at the tops of turbine towers to support nacelles. The foundry specializes in large gray and ductile iron castings weighing between 3,000 lb and 200,000 lb.

“Working in the mining industry was a real good stepping stone toward meeting the specifications of the wind turbine castings. While the mechanical properties of our casting process needed to be further developed for the wind turbine parts, we already had the control end of the process fully in place, having made so many castings for the mining industry,” explained Mike Forsha, vice president of operations at Hodge Foundry.

The foundry made its way into wind work in 2002, starting with one customer and progressing through a learning curve with them. The one thing it had to learn/develop were the specifications of the iron used in the turbine component castings.

During extensive research, Hodge Foundry discovered that the castings have a low-temperature impact specification that is quite difficult to achieve. After a lot of testing, it was able to meet the requirements and currently casts parts for Clipper Wind in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a U.S. wind turbine manufacturer and major customer of the foundry.

In lieu of the wind turbine industry gaining momentum in the United States, Hodge Foundry also upgraded its facilities, its personnel and some of its supporting technologies. Within the foundry, it added a 75-ton crane and one for hot metal pouring.

The foundry bolstered its engineering staff with more people to cultivate into process engineers. But most important, Hodge took on additional quality personnel and now has six quality technicians on staff.

AFCO Precision Manufacturing easily transitioned into wind turbine work thanks to its previous experience in the automotive industry and existing large-part machining capacity.

These technicians use ultrasound equipment and an articulated-arm CMM to check castings. In addition, a recently added digital camera-based CMM expanded the foundry’s casting measurement/inspection envelope even further.

To help it meet the stringent wind turbine casting requirements, Hodge Foundry installed Magmasoft’s solidification modeling software. The program simulates the flow of molten metal and solidification in a mold, so the proper processes can be determined without having to pour several test castings.

T. Bailey Inc., a civil and industrial general contracting company, had its wind turbine capacities largely in place as a result of its construction experience. The shop now has over four years of experience in fabrication, painting, and delivery of wind turbine towers ranging from 180 ft to 240 ft in height, and provides wind towers to companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries LTD and Suzlon Wind Energy Corp.

“With our construction experience and manufacturing facilities, it was a natural, strategic decision for us to get into the business of building wind turbine towers,” commented T. Bailey’s weld manager Kris Morse.

As part of this move into wind, the shop initiated an aggressive expansion plan and a competitive analysis of its available options in manufacturing, and in particular, submerged arc welding. Simply expanding its facilities wasn’t going to be enough to keep up with growing demand. According to Morse, T. Bailey Inc. took a hard look at its welding operations because every seam on every tower the shop builds is welded.

To help meet production levels of 475 to 550 towers annually, T. Bailey incorporated a welding system from the Lincoln Electric Co. (). The system included a power source, electrode and flux, which improve the shop’s multiple-pass welding operations. As a newcomer to the wind turbine industry, Dowding Industries relied heavily on its experience as a manufacturer of fabricated and machined components for a wide range of industries. Following a methodical plan, the shop entered the wind turbine industry last year, and to understand that industry better, Dowding Industries sought help from its primary supplier of machining systems, MAG Industrial Automation Systems.

According to Dowding Machining president Jeff Metts, the shop’s critical success factors were uptime and common controls.

“Solid OEM service plays a big role in uptime for large machines, and homogenous controls allow us to be ambidextrous within our machine capability and simplify our training,” he said.

The machinery supplier provided extensive application and time studies, based on wind generator part prints provided by Dowding Industries. Studies included machine recommendations, fixturing, setups, tooling, cycle times and earnings per hour. All risks and unknowns were addressed, which raised Dowding Industries’ comfort level for largepart machining, and for the major commitment it made to enter the wind turbine industry.

The shop purchased three massive machining systems in 2008, and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm helped to dedicate the shop’s new 35,000-sq-ft facility for producing turbine components and other large, critical parts. Also, a recent stimulus-driven, three-year extension of the production tax credit for renewable energy investment should help ensure further success, at Dowding Industries.