After challenges with sourcing tools for their wind turbine production and installation, Danish company Vestas began exploring how to optimize their overall manufacturing process. By using smart software, digital warehousing and 3D print from Markforged, the company can now produce whatever tool they need, whenever and wherever they need it.
In the renewable energy sector, no one has probably missed towering wind turbines. They are constructed at heights up to 259 meters, and a rotor diameter of up to 236 meters. If you spot a wind turbine, it is likely made by Danish company Vestas.
Vestas set up shop just after the Second World War. Initially, Vestas focused their business on hydraulics for light trucks. Then, in the 1970s, the company moved in to alternative energy solutions. The first wind turbine saw the light of day in 1979.
Since the 1980s, Vestas only develops wind turbines and sells these worldwide. The company is today the world’s largest producer of on and offshore wind turbines and wind turbine blades.
Sourced parts a challenge for installation and inspection
For maximum yield, the wind turbines must function reliably with minimal downtime. During manufacturing and installation, there is no room for mistakes. Due to this, Vestas relies on several inspection gauges. These vital tools have traditionally been purchased from a number of vendors around the globe. Always based on detailed manufacturing instructions. Previously, the sourced parts would be sent to a Vestas site for compliance inspection and approval.
Unfortunately, some of the locally manufactured parts were not fully made to specifications. This meant they weren’t approved. The results were delays in delivery and installation. Even when parts were approved in the specialized inspection process, most were manufactured using slow, costly machining methods.
One such example is the top center (TC) marking tools. These critical tools are used by the company to define the root end of turbine blades to align the pitch. TC tools would normally take about a month to produce. Due to machine limitations, Vestas would have to order several different versions of the TC marking tool to fit a range of blades. There were also the lightning tip receptors, designed to reduce lightning strike damage. These receptors are manufactured with a subtractive manufacturing method in aluminium. They often take a minimum of three months to manufacture.
Cloud-based warehouse for 3D printed parts
A team at Vestas began exploring how to optimize their overall manufacturing process. By using Markforged’s cloud-based, AI-powered Digital Forge additive manufacturing platform, the company successfully started its direct digital manufacturing (DDM) program in 2021. The manufacturing program liberates manufacturing processes from depending on external suppliers, and provides a knowledge base for collaboration. Already today, the DDM program consists of over 2000 Vestas parts warehoused in a Markforged Eiger database accessible in the cloud. This allows staff at any Vestas location — even those with no additive manufacturing expertise — to swiftly search for and 3D print any fiber-reinforced composite parts on their local Markforged X7 3D printer, plus composite parts on their Markforged Onyx One 3D printers.
“Our approach is end-to-end”, says Jeremy Haight, Principal Engineer — Additive Manufacturing & Advanced Concepts at Vestas. We provide the physical article in near real-time to a variety of places. It’s the closest thing to teleportation I think you can get.”
Because of the digital warehousing and 3D print, the Vestas team now rely on consistent, up-to-spec parts in short time, around the globe, without the need for specialists at their global facilities. This has significantly cut shipping and freight costs, and manufacturing lead times.
3D printed parts that weigh 85% less
A few examples of how DDM works can be seen with the previously mentioned TC marking tools and lightning tip receptors. The TC marking tool that used to take weeks and thousands of euros to manufacture, is now being made in only a few days. And because the tool is printed using fiber-reinforced Onyx, a durable, lightweight nylon blend material, the previous parts made in metal now weigh 85% less than before.
As for the lightning tip receptors, local blade manufacturing sites will be able to produce them in 3D printed copper on demand. Vestas estimates that, once implemented, each of these receptors will take about two days to manufacture. Most importantly, the Vestas team no longer has to worry about these or any other parts failing compliance tests because they are printed on-demand and in-house using exact digital specifications. Also, accuracy of tools is verified using Markforged Blacksmith for in-process inspection, analysis, and reporting.
True on demand 3D printing of critical parts
Vestas sees this digital warehousing and 3D print as critical for new product development and tool and end-use part availability throughout its business. In 2022, the company will begin using DDM for inspection gauge tooling beyond its blades to facilitate on-demand gauge production at all 23 of its manufacturing locations. Vestas has also partnered with Wurth to build an additive ecosystem and manage an inventory of spare parts made with The Digital Forge platform to support maintenance, repair, and operations for local field support and other suppliers.
Once the initial roll-out is complete, Vestas will turn its attention to implementing a more in-depth, end-to-end process at its sites. The company is making it easier for individuals at any Vestas site with the right permissions to scan a part code or search for a part in its enterprise asset management and enterprise resource planning systems, and have it automatically sent to the right local 3D printer. This centralized control of users, printers, and parts inspection, using Blacksmith and Eiger Fleet, will ensure high-quality, high-performing tools and end-use parts that do the jobs they are designed to do. The more Vestas brings manufacturing in-house via additive manufacturing, the faster its products will reach the market, and the more time and money it will save in the process.