Energy drives investment

5 min read

While oil and gas are still the core of the energy market, renewables are a growing element. But whatever the source, the hardware has to be made, as Steed Webzell reports

One cutting tool supplier alert to the wind energy market is Kennametal which has recently introduced new literature highlighting the tooling solutions that are available to wind turbine component manufacturers. Image: Wind turbine industry Kennametal's KSEM Plus modular drills, for example, can help boost productivity in the manufacture of wind energy components, such as tower segments, pitch bearings, hubs, housings and frames. KSEM Plus doubles the metal removal rate of older tools, drilling a 39 mm hole to a 175 mm depth in 42CrMo4 steel in less than 30 seconds. Kennametal says that such results can add hundreds of machine hours to a company's capacity each year. In another example, milling the giant cast iron rotor hubs used on wind towers can take up to 20 hours, with conventional tooling. However, using Kennametal's Dodeka or FixPerfect milling cutters can mean significant reductions in the number of face and interpolation milling tasks. In terms of manufacturing technologies, many innovations that benefit the wind energy sector find their way overseas to leaders in this field, such as Germany, Spain and the US. A case in point is the vision systems made in the UK by Meta Vision, which are now being used to automate welding tasks on wind turbine towers. Not only is tower assembly time- consuming, the welds must be of high quality to meet safety criteria. Most of the structural welds are multi-pass, using high welding currents and relatively slow speeds. The traditional welding method involves an operator monitoring the process remotely via a camera and positioning the welding torch manually, using a joystick. This is tiring and prone to human error. Moreover, operators often need to leave the process unattended to perform other tasks. Both of these issues can compromise weld integrity, leading to extensive rework. Recently, however, coinciding with the release of Meta's new DLS300 digital 3D laser scanner, a number of automated welding systems have been installed, in partnership with AMET Inc, at various wind turbine manufacturers in the US. The industry is using them to help fabricate towers for onshore and offshore wind energy, especially the larger, next-generation structures. Time and manpower savings are allowing firms to manufacture more cost-effectively and more quickly, with fewer weld defects. Meta's new sensor uses triangulation, but is based on a scanning spot, rather than a stripe, solving the two main problems of stripe-based triangulation. First, it is easy to implement effective automatic gain control to compensate for reflectivity changes. Second, imaging is via a linear charge coupled device, which only looks at the region of interest and is not affected by reflections. "Trials in various welding applications, including adaptive submerged arc welding of nuclear vessels and wind tower production, have been extremely successful," says Bob Beattie, Meta's managing director. Of course, the big question on everyone's lips regarding energy markets is, how long will fossil fuels last? Estimates vary but BP has reopened the debate on when 'peak oil' supply will be reached by announcing last month a big new discovery in the Gulf of Mexico, which some believe could be as large as the Forties, the biggest field ever found in the North Sea. (Forties was discovered in the 1960s by BP, produced oil first in 1975, is now owned, since 2003, by Apache of the US. Forties produced 500,000 barrels/day at peak output; total reserves were put at over 4 billion barrels – not all recoverable, of course.) The Gulf of Mexico strike came days after Iran unveiled an even larger find of 8.8 billion barrels of crude oil, and the finds have encouraged sceptics of theories that say peak production has been reached, or soon will be, to hail a new golden age of exploration and supply. This is good news for the host of machining companies that have developed a specialty in the important oil sector. Here, due to the complexities of many of the components used for oil field applications, CAM developer Delcam has been enjoying extended levels of success the world over. For instance, typical of the savings made possible using its FeatureCAM machining software are those achieved by US-based Hawk Industries Inc, a designer and builder of specialty oil drilling tools, based in California. The company reduced machining time for its alloy steel components overall by 80 per cent, with its implementation of the software and an investment in CNC mills. The change to FeatureCAM also cut its programming times by 30 per cent and helped the company triple its output. Also in the US, this time in Wisconsin, Owen Industries has been using Delcam's PowerMill CAM software to great effect in the production of a particularly challenging safety valve for down-hole oil drilling "We were really struggling with the project, so we approached our local Delcam reseller, to see if the people there could do any better," says Mark Plesnik, vice president of Owens. "We promised to buy two seats of PowerMILL if they could provide programs that would machine the parts to the strict tolerances we needed. The results were immaculate and our customer was delighted. Looking back, I think we had realised for a while that we had needed new software ever since we had added our simultaneous 5-axis machines." OIL BUSINESS BECKONS Back in the UK and sub-contractor Barker Collins continues to supply components including whipstocks, stabilisers, cans and reamers for drilling, pipeline tooling, pumps and valves, and seabed fastening systems. One of the Sheffield-based company's major customers is the William Cook Group, a supplier of components, such as suction casings, multi-stage pumps, Duplex flow control valves and split pump casings to the oil and gas sector. Stating that Barker Collins is a preferred supplier, a spokesman for the William Cook Group says that "it came as no surprise to us that, when requested to virtually double its machining supply to us through 2008, the response by Barker Collins was immediate. New machines have been brought on-line, at no small expense, and service at our new levels has been maintained". Image: A large Soralace floor borer part of the investment programme at Barker Collins Barker Collins' managing director Chris Carter adds: "We have a good pedigree of supplying a range of both shaft-type and prismatic components to oil and gas customers on a secondary supply basis, but our enhanced CNC machining capability – over £5.5 million has been invested during the past five years, which includes a 7,500 by 1,400 by 1,000 mm Soraluce CNC milling centre from Ward CNC – will now enable customers to capitalise fully on the benefits of direct supply." Box Item 1 New spark satisfies demand Northern Ireland-based Diamond Precision has taken delivery of a new Sodick Premium AQ 750LH wire EDM from Sodi-Tech is helping the company forge an important niche in oil and gas markets. Diamond Precision uses Sodick EDM technology to produce stainless steel components for a sub-assembly used in the oil and gas sector by one of its customers, a key international oilfield service provider. The 25 mm components act as safety valves for leak protection in pipes that draw up the oil. "There are various operations involved such as turning, milling and CNC wire/spark erosion, for which we use the Sodick machines," says managing director John McCauley. "We work very hard, exotic stainless steel to tolerances as small as 0.013 mm. We chose the AQ750 LH because we were getting a lot more enquiries for wire erosion jobs and its size enabled us to handle larger components." Box Item 2 Life at the coal face While renewables may be de rigueur, coal is still widely used throughout the world, as Clitheroe Light Engineering can testify. This precision sub-contractor is enjoying considerable success, supplying coal mining equipment all around the globe, even as far as Australia. In fact, the company has recently supplied much of the internal hydraulic valve gear required for roof supports at Anglo Coal's Moranbah North underground mine in central Queensland and is currently producing similar parts for another Australian coal mine, Blakefield South in New South Wales, for which work is ongoing throughout 2009. To help meet demand, Clitheroe Light has recently ordered a £400,000 NH5000 50-taper horizontal machining centre from Mori Seiki, which is currently being shipped over from Japan. A grant for more than 10 per cent of the purchase price has been obtained from the Northwest Regional Development Agency. At the same time, a second grant has been secured for a further identical HMC, which will be ordered when the level of business dictates. First published in Machinery, October 2009