Project aims to demonstrate additive manufacturing of >100-metre-long composite wind blades with >25% reduced cost

Containerized 3D printing robots for AM wind blade manufacture

ORBITAL Composites based in the US, will collaborate with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Maine to advance on-site, high-throughput manufacturing of wind blades with large-scale continuous fibre additive manufacturing via a $4 million grant from the US Dept of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Orbital notes that this project will also enable the demonstration/potential validation use of its containerized 3D printing robots for wind blade manufacture.

Orbital Composites says it has been pioneering its own accomplishments under its Mobile Robotic Additive Manufacturing with Continuous Fibre, a modular platform which uses a twelve-axis robot arm to enable AM of non-planar surfaces. Having already demonstrated thermoplastic and thermoset AM reinforced with continuous carbon and glass fibres, the company has a vision of eventually building large scale-up systems capable of printing entire wind blades greater than 100 metres in length. Currently, the system’s ORB OS software allows multi-robot collaboration as well.

This goal comes about due to several challenges the wind industry still faces. For example, with low-cost energy expected to reach 35% of global energy demand by 2050 (driven by wind blade cost reductions), optimal locations for onshore wind farms are forcing operators to build wind farms in harder-to-reach areas. In addition to this, blade transportation is often limited in the US to blade lengths between 53-62 metres by road and rail infrastructure, constraining future cost-reduction potential. A landmark study by the International Energy Agency (IEA, Paris, France) suggests on-site manufacturing as one of the disruptive technologies needed to continue to reduce the cost of wind energy.

Shipping containers are the most versatile and lowest-cost method for global relocation. Mould transportation costs can be greatly reduced if 3D printing feedstock loaded shipping containers are being transported instead of mould surfaces.

A mobile factory may also be the solution for crane use, particularly as offshore wind turbines are built bigger. The sheer scale of off-shore deployment vessels is an impressive feat, one unmatched by terrestrial cranes. Cranes big enough for land-based, 100-metre-long blades do not exist. If the shipping containerized factory can be placed directly beneath the tower, then blade hoist and repair systems may be incorporated into the shipping container superstructure.

Orbital Composites is offering a comprehensive solution showing a path to manufacturing and transportation cost reduction by more than 25%, increased throughput speeds and reduced labour compared to conventional blade manufacturing processes. Orbital Composites says it can also show how AM can enable a more than 50% reduction in new blade design lead times, allowing wind blade OEMs to introduce a large variety of site-optimized blades with higher efficiency and lower cost of energy (COE).

Further, 100-metre continuous fibre structures may revolutionize another industry in the near future: rockets. This claim may be compared to the Saturn V rocket with 110.6-metre-tall and 10.1-metre-wide launch vehicles, or SpaceX’s current Starship plan, which call for a 122-metre-tall and ~10-metre-wide rocket. Both rockets are currently metallic.