NREL Utilizes Robots for Wind Turbine Blade Manufacturing


Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have leveraged robotic assistance in the manufacture of wind turbine blades, allowing for the potential elimination of difficult working conditions for humans and possible improvement to product consistency.

The paper, “Toolpath Generation for Automated Wind Turbine Blade Finishing Operations,” appears in the journal Wind Energy. The coauthors, all from NREL, are Casey Nichols, Scott Lambert, Petr Sindler, Derek Berry, David Barnes, Ryan Beach,and David Snowberg.

The post-molding operations to manufacture wind turbine blades require workers to perch on scaffolding and wear protective suits including respiratory gear. Research at the laboratory demonstrates the ability of a robot to trim, grind and sand blades. 

“This work is critical to enable significant U.S.-based blade manufacturing for the domestic wind turbine market,” says Daniel Laird, director of the National Wind Technology Center at NREL. “Though it may not be obvious, automating some of the labor in blade manufacture can lead to more U.S. jobs because it improves the economics of domestic blades versus imported blades.”

The research was conducted at the Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology facility at NREL’s Flatirons Campus, where the robot worked on a 5-meter-long blade segment. 

The researchers used a series of scans to create a 3D representation of the position of the blade and to identify precisely the front and rear sections of the airfoil. 

From there, the team programmed the robot to perform a series of tasks. The researchers found areas for improvement, particularly when it came to grinding. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office funded the research.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. It is operated for DOE by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy.

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