Iowa State Sets Up Wind Energy Manufacturing Lab


Iowa State University researchers are working with TPI Composites Inc. and the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories to study and improve the process used to manufacture wind turbine blades.

Iowa State University researchers are working with researchers from TPI Composites, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that operates a turbine blade factory in Newton; and the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., to improve the process currently used to manufacture turbine blades.

The researchers' work is supported by a three-year, $6.3 million project called the "Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Initiative." One-third of the project's funding is from the Iowa Power Fund, a state program to advance energy innovation and independence. TPI Composites and the U.S. Department of Energy are also providing equal shares of funding.

The grant will allow Iowa State to establish a Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory on campus. The lab will feature the work of four faculty researchers: Matt Frank, Frank Peters and John Jackman, all associate professors of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, and Vinay Dayal, an associate professor of aerospace engineering. The grant will also support the research of five graduate students and several undergraduates.

The researchers' goal is to develop new, low-cost manufacturing systems that could improve the productivity of turbine blade factories by as much as 35 percent. "The current manufacturing methods are very labor intensive," Jackman said. "We need to improve throughput – we need to get more blades produced every week in order for it to be economical to continue to produce wind energy components in the United States." Peters said possible manufacturing improvements include developments in automation and quality control.

Peters said Iowa State's new lab will initially work with smaller versions of the molds used to manufacture fiberglass turbine blades. The lab will allow the researchers to study blade manufacturing in a controlled setting while they look for ways to boost efficiency. Eventually, the lab could also study the manufacturing of wind towers, the nacelles that sit atop the towers, gearboxes and other wind energy components.

Dayal, who's also a faculty associate with Iowa State's Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, said the lab will also look at developing new ways for manufacturers to inspect blades without taking them apart. Faster, better inspections are another way to improve factory efficiency and blade reliability.

Iowa, which has an installed wind energy capacity of 2,790 megawatts, is second in the country in wind power production. And Iowa is one of only two states that are home to manufacturing facilities for wind energy turbines, blades and towers.

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