Oct 29, 2009

Reinvent now

I have a real reason for you to come to Detroit next week. There’s a supply chain workshop for the wind turbine industry going on (American Wind Energy Association and NextEnergy) and it presents opportunities you may not have thought of.

Leaving aside the question of whether wind is better than coal or solar better than gas, wind turbines are going up fast. Well, sort of fast. The wait for a turbine, I hear, is measured in years. A case where demand is greater than supply.

There are at least three hard-hit industries I can think of that should be jumping at the chance to go to this conference—automotive suppliers, machine tool builders, and companies like Caterpillar that build mining and construction equipment.

Just one turbine contains 8,000 components: metal parts, sensors, hubs, rotors, blades, shafts, and tower sections. That’s a lot of value added, and the turbine manufacturers aren’t going to do it all themselves.

So what capabilities do you have that you can leverage to enter the industry?

First, you need a record of building highly reliable products from design to serviceability. It’s no simple matter to repair a wind turbine, and catastrophic failures are not unknown. And achieving reliability requires lubrication systems, electronics, remote maintenance information systems, and other stuff I know nothing about.

Related to reliability is quality. Do you have six sigma expertise embedded throughout your company? GE is one of the big time OEMs, and they speak six sigma there. Auto suppliers have tremendous talent in this area, and if you need it, the industry has released a flood of talent. Find those folks now, before the improving economy absorbs them.

Wind turbines have some REALLY BIG THINGS in them. That’s where some machine tool builders and makers of big equipment should be looking, not waiting for their old markets to return. Really big parts require expertise in metallurgy, casting, forging, heat treating, welding, testing, and traceability. How about rolling 17-ton seamless rings more than 7 meters across. What about forging 18-ton shafts?

Know how to make castings? A wind turbine can use 10- to 25 tons of ductile iron castings, from less than 100 to more than 50,000 lbs each. A rotor hub can weigh 36,000 lbs and measure 15 ft in diameter. I don’t have to give you details of the extreme attention to metallurgy and casting quality required here. Forming parts from specialized alloys is not easy.

Castings large and not-so-large will need machining. What turbine parts are about the size of a vehicle engine block? Just asking.

Fasteners. 500 bolts per turbine, then pins, washers, studs—you name it. Need I say more?

The publicized call for suppliers doesn’t say they should understand lean, TPS, kaizen, continuous improvement, or six sigma. However, you can bet the companies with the strongest grasp of lean will be able to gain the edge. They should be able to make parts with lower cost and higher quality. They should be a source of manufacturability knowledge. They should be able to innovate in the area of materials and methods, transferring them from other industries. They should be able to deliver on time. They should be able to galvanize a workforce to achieve great things.

Money. OK. You need to invest in new capital equipment, make sure your software aligns with that of customers and vendors in the industry, redouble your training efforts, enter an industry that you don’t already feel comfortable in. And you’re tapped out. That’s where the AWEA conference and workshop comes in. It involves bringing the latest news from Washington, state economic development agencies, sources of information about tax credits. You can get a big gulp of information about the industry. You can meet potential customers and learn how they see their needs evolving.

In more news from Detroit, it looks like Zug Island (if you ever lived here, you’ll chuckle now) will clean itself up and become the home of a research center that could change the game. The vision is to develop a 15-20 mw turbine (current turbines are more like 1.5 mw). NextEnergy and a flock of companies, agencies, governments, universities and other organizations are looking for mega-money, and might just get it.

Crain’s Detroit Business says NextEnergy has talked with more than 1,000 auto suppliers about getting into the wind industry. I wish I knew what the outcomes have been.

States like Michigan are not going to be able to turn a switch and “retool” the economy. You’re going to do that. Innovative and adaptive manufacturing leaders are going to move up and build an industry. Question is, will you be with them?

1 comment:

Jamie Flinchbaugh said...

I hope you'll write about what you hear and learn at the event. Michigan does need an influx of new industry to replace what the auto industry will never regain. So far, Michigan has proven itself strong in alternative energies.

Jamie Flinchbaugh

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