Composites are complex. Working with them requires knowledge, skills and experience. However, composites are also extremely strong, robust materials used widely in industry and society. It is time for a national turbine blade repair standard to open up the wind market to new, highly-competent competition and drive down offshore costs, argues UK composites expert, Chris Little.
It is not too far-fetched to say that composites are taking over the world. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is 80% composites. The automotive industry is embracing composites. With the strength of steel for only one-sixth of the thickness, composites are essential to light-weight construction and energy-efficiency.
Working with composites is a skilled job, but one that is becoming commonplace across UK industry. Which is why a national performance standard for wind turbine blade repair is now needed urgently to encourage the development of a cost-competitive wind industry supply chain.
This is the view of Chris Little, an acknowledged expert in the fast-growing UK composites sector. His far-sighted view is keenly backed by Green Marine Solutions (GMS). Until 2006, Little was training officer for Isle of Wight blade-maker, Vestas, and responsible for the training of hundreds of blade-builders every year.
Since then, he has had a fundamental role in creating the UK’s modern composite industry, plus the trade group Composites UK. The Government is equally optimistic. It sees composites as high-value manufacturing materials experiencing exponential growth; the UK is currently the world’s top composite leader, after the USA.
Composites for all
"Composites are complex, need a skilled workforce to manufacture and a detailed knowledge and understanding to avoid errors that can have long-term consequences," explains Little.
"At the same time, they are extremely strong and resilient materials with many useful properties. They are building-blocks of the future."
"Essentially, composites are formed of a glass-fibre structural reinforcement and an epoxy or polyester resin. You make the material as you use it to create a bonded structure with very high-performance characteristics."
The technology is common to all manufacturers. "All blade-makers use similar materials and processes. Yet, if you want to become a blade repairer at present you are obliged to complete a series of different and quite costly training courses with each manufacturer," says Little.
However, once the OEM’s warrantee has expired, there is no reason why an equally-competent supply chain can’t step in, he believes.
Blades are not fit-and-forget
"You cannot simply fit blades and then neglect them," Little explains. "Damage can occur in many ways. Blades are subject to erosion and can be compromised by lightning strikes. Salt, sand, rain and ice effects may reduce their efficiency."
"Repair work can range from minor surface to significant structural work. Safety is a critical concern. Rescue arrangements at height are crucial," he adds.
"You must be a fully-competent and experienced team to work safely and productively at all times. But this is what properly-trained teams now do routinely."
He adds: "I know what is involved and believe it would be much more efficient for utility companies and wind farm operators if there was one, common approved national standard covering all inspection, repair and maintenance activity, no matter who carries it out."
"There is no technical barrier to this. The requirements are intense. But it is quite feasible to keep abreast of all technical developments and still remain cost-effective."
To promote training in composites, Little has set up Consulta Training Ltd. "The current position simply reflects the immaturity of the market," he argues. "Yes, each blade manufacturer builds blades in a slightly different way. But trying to protect intellectual property when the technology is out there and being used competently every day, even in extreme environments, is creating an unnecessary barrier. It is time to move on."
"I know several major wind farm utilities who resent having to put staff through many different costly courses," he points out. "They feel that they are being held unfairly to ransom. There are better alternatives and it is only a matter of time before change is inevitable. Better sooner than later."
Blade repair in integral packages
GMS is also a firm advocate of a national blade repair standard. This is consistent with GMS’ efficiency package philosophy which has been designed to save the offshore wind industry money, time and risks.
GMS’ approach integrates O&M, inspection and repair work to minimise but make maximum use of downtime opportunities. Otherwise, lost downtime is lost revenue.
In parallel, the company also specialises in pro-active marine coordination and marine management, backed by its pioneering but well-established tracking and monitoring system, ROAM (Real-time Operational Asset Management).
ROAM provides an instant, low-cost management interface between land and sea for tasks and projects of all sizes. It creates accountability with control.
Together, these strategic services mean that blade repair work can be now factored in between a moving matrix of tasks to take optimum advantage of vessel, circumstantial and weather windows.