Manufacture Composite Wind Blades Right the First Time With Nearly Zero Physical Tests or Prototypes

Six Cornerstones to Improve Your "First-Time-Right" Rates and Achieve R&D Efficiency Targets

by Mathilde Chabin
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Every branch of manufacturing is taking a digital turn, and it’s not just a fad. Digital solutions are bringing immediate and long-term benefits and competitive advantages to manufacturing industries, be it for testing out more cost-effective or sustainable manufacturing strategies, or aiming for more sustainable practices for product development itself. The wind energy industry is no exception – actually, the large size of the parts to be tested, prototyped, and manufactured make digital solutions even more compelling with regards to securing a sustainable business. So how does the use of virtual prototyping and simulation in the development of composite for wind blades reduce errors and improve first-time-right rates with net-zero processes?

Virtual Prototyping is a proven, end-to-end digital methodology to achieve reliable, accelerated, cost-effective workflows by chaining product development, manufacturing operations, and product maintenance. It is a sustainable approach, reducing the need for physical tests and prototypes, hence reducing material waste and energy consumption involved in both product development and production.

Customer expectations are always on the rise, with demand for increasingly longer wind blades for example. Each time product design is changing or being stretched to its limits, simulation is the only way for engineers to make sure they are getting it right, for manufacturing and performance. For innovating new products, introducing new materials, or new manufacturing processes, engineers cannot rely on experience: that’s where Virtual Prototyping and more precisely composites manufacturing simulation software enters the equation. The software built on material science delivers predictive results, even for non-linear material behavior, so engineers can efficiently validate manufacturing processes and their parameters, all virtually.

Virtual Prototyping Applied to the Wind Energy

In the wind energy sector, EUROS, a German wind blade design and manufacturing company (now part of TPI composites) built one of the largest wind blades ever produced at the time: over 80 meters long. One of the reasons behind this success was their ability to develop the right composites manufacturing simulation processes. “Thanks to PAM-RTM, we can develop several infusion strategies in a short time for the manufacturing of different types of onshore and offshore wind turbine rotor blades,” then explained Mathias Marois, then Head of Production Technology Department / EUROS Germany.

Euros’ goal was to improve their vacuum infusion process for resin impregnation, paying special attention to the root area of the blade, as any defect in this area could jeopardize structural integrity. With an outer diameter of 4.4 meters and up to 160 plies of glass fabrics, mastering the composites manufacturing process of the root area is extremely challenging – especially in light of its very complex laminate definition. EUROS’ engineering team set an objective to achieve an infusion time of fewer than 90 minutes. A new infusion strategy had to be developed to reach good results in terms of product quality, process time, control, and repeatability of the process. At the end of the project, EUROS built the first offshore blade, 81.6 meters long and weighing 32.8 tons. They reached all their pre-defined goals for product quality, infusion time, resin consumption, and repeatability of the process.

Choosing the Right Simulation Vendor to Achieve your R&D Efficiency targets

You are currently managing Composites Manufacturing processes, using numerical simulation but you are not satisfied with your department’s efficiency? Here are six corners you need to turn to achieve R&D efficiency. Think about the following points of attention when choosing your simulation vendor:

1. Don’t select a vendor, select a partner

Navigating the Zero Test, Zero Prototype journey is not easy. It’s crucial to choose an experienced vendor that can also provide worthy advice and services, accompany the initial implementation of the software, help you with workflow improvement, deliver first-class software training, and provide great customer support along the way. It’s always a good idea to look at the company’s scientific knowledge, see which R&D projects they are involved in, what customers they work with within your industry segment, or how they could leverage the experience they gained in other industries.

2. Look for tools that help you manage the complexity of simulations across various fields of engineering

In an ideal software environment, iterations happen simultaneously across all physical domains and departments, overcoming the limitations of common but inefficient “assembly line” approaches. Composite manufacturing managers should exploit advanced digital technologies in such a way that their teams are able to combine 3D computer-aided design (CAD) models, virtual manufacturing, and assembly simulation with computer-aided engineering (CAE) analysis models.

3. Aim for interoperability

The most effective toolchain seamlessly connects with CATIA Fibersim, then with all manufacturing processes from draping and thermoforming to Resin Transfer Molding (RTM), high-pressure RTM and Compression-RTM, resin Infusion and its variants, they use Sheet Molding Compound (SMC), curing and crystallization – all this using a single simulation software platform. 

4. Prioritize chaining capabilities to link manufacturing and product performance together

Imagine the difference you can make when you empower your engineers to assess the geometrical distortions induced by the manufacturing process plus connect with most FEA simulation packages to evaluate product performance.

5. Seek reliable physics-based features such as fluid mechanical coupling

Adding this simulation capability to your toolchain is a mission-critical specificity for any team who wants to deliver precise, accurate simulation for Resin Transfer Molding. When resin is poured, engineers understand in detail not only how it flows but also how the part reacts to the manufacturing process - for example, how thickness may increase.

6. Consider opportunities for cross-industry know-how transfer

The wind sector stands to benefit a lot from knowledge transfer and cross-industry innovation, adopting proven best practices and technologies from other composite-heavy sectors like aerospace and automotive. Make sure you join an ecosystem that broadens your understanding of how others have already successfully brought new materials to market by innovating fully virtually.


Composite Development Best-Practices in Other Industries

To understand how OEMs outside of wind energy benefit from Virtual Prototyping and composite simulation, let’s look at two examples:  In the automotive industry, Nissan was looking for ways to set up complex composites manufacturing processes for carbon fiber parts, in a bid to produce safer and lighter vehicles. Using Virtual Prototyping, the OEM succeeded in producing a high-quality component with a development time reduced by 50% and reduced manufacturing cycle time by 80% per single molding. This allowed Nissan to produce more complex part shapes, which translated into an average weight reduction of 80kg per vehicle.

In the aerospace industry, Spirit Aerosystems, one of the world’s largest manufacturer of aerostructures, faced similar challenges as those encountered by wind blade manufacturers: getting the composite infusion processes right the first time. During a recent webinar, Conrad Jones, Senior Composite Development Engineer from Spirit AeroSystems, shared insights into a recent demonstrator project and explained how they collaborate with ESI to achieve Spirit’s product development goals:

“Mitigating all these risks, not only have we been able to deliver a successfully manufactured demonstrator on time, first time, cost and time savings were made through the use of the manufacturing process simulation. This 7-meter cover is not a standalone instance of our collaboration with ESI, we have been working with them over a number of years across multiple projects. They started out as small feature demonstrators. As our confidence in their ability to simulate infusion grew, we’ve relied on them to provide simulation on larger, more complex components up to 20 meters in size. Looking into the future, we will continue to use their experience in simulating the infusion process and are looking to include some of their other process simulations in our work such as cured component distortion. I look forward to our continuous collaboration with ESI […].”

Going Beyond Simulation...

To conclude: the ultimate goal when using composites simulation software is to replace design complexity by consistency to optimize the performance of the final product, so that the OEM is free to pursue innovation without the risk of disruption, in a financially sustainable way. Speaking about sustainability: as a result, your organization can digitally experience and validate the fabrication, assembly, and behavior of their new wind turbine in different environments, early and throughout the entire product lifecycle – in a zero-emission, zero scrap fashion.

To learn more about how we, at ESI, approach composites manufacturing simulation, I invite you to visit our dedicated web section.

If you crave for more information, you can also find a compelling list of technical papers crafted by our international expert team, many of which have been published in JEC Magazine.

Category: Energy