The Vestas - Boeing collaboration: Putting the wind beneath their wings

The wind energy industry recently looked to the aviation industry to advance existing blade technologies. The most recent inter-industry collaboration could place Vestas ahead of the game, not only on blades but across the whole value chain.

By Karl Harder

As the wind industry seeks to deliver ever-larger blades, the creation of new generation, cost effective, lightweight and high strength materials is critical.  Having fallen behind in the race to develop large offshore turbines, the blades market is where Vestas could claw back some of its competitive advantage.

2009 was the year set aside to enable researchers from both companies to map their current research. The purpose, explains Jan Kristiansen, Senior Vice President, Vestas Technology R&D, was to “identify where the opportunities lie for collaboration driven technology leaps.”

Tom Koehlor from Boeing R&D explains: “We are starting to identify areas where both companies are conducting similar research and therefore where the opportunities lies for streamlining and speeding up these current work streams. At the same time we are spotting areas where are combined expertise will enable the creation of exciting new technology focused research projects”.

It is expected that in early 2010 specific projects will be announced. But key areas of interest are now becoming clear.

Vestas’ long-term ambition for the Boeing relationship is that it will facilitate more technological firsts similar to the announcement in late October comcerning the prototype “Stealth” blade. The stealth blade was developed in partnership with consultancy QinetiQ, to reduce radar interference of turbines to near zero.

Blade composites and aerodynamics

The core problem facing both the aviation and wind industries is how to make materials that are lighter and more durable. From the aviation perspective, this is to ensure that that planes fuel efficiency is improved.

“There is a strong correlation between new technologies needed in the aerospace industry and new technologies required in the wind energy business,” says Jan Närlinge, President of Boeing Northern Europe.

“Weight directly links to fuel efficiency and onto climate change. Improving the environmental performance of aircraft has become the biggest driver of R&D in the industry,” he explains.

Aerodynamics is another central win. The challenge of refining the aerodynamics of a wind turbine poses an almost identical problem to the challenge of improving helicopter blade aerodynamics.  As such, Vestas could significantly gain from its relationship with Boeing by tapping into Boeing’s back catalogue of helicopter blade research.

But as Kristiansen points out: “Some design philosophies cannot be transferred directly between sectors.  The service intervals for turbine blades are much longer than in the aviation industry therefore a wind blade needs to be considerably more durable.”

This difference creates an opportunity for Boeing. “Improving our research capability in the area of structural health is a key interest. The wind industry has been grappling with the durability question since its inception and we hope to tap into this expertise” explains Koehlor.

Kristiansen notes that the development of big blades has reached a ceiling due to the limits of Vestas’ control knowledge. To this end, the company is assessing the benefits of applying wing flap technology in future turbine blade design. “The use of wing flaps for controlling a plane during flight is very similar to the control technologies required for wind turbine blades. As we look to develop larger blades tapping into the aviation industries knowledge of control could prove another fruitful area of work,” he says. 

Open innovation strategy

Vestas’ collaboration with Boeing earlier this year was part of a step change in their technology development strategy.

Six months on, it is becoming clear that the opportunity lies not just with product innovation, but also across the whole value chain. Potential projects have already been identified in the area of manufacturing process innovation.

Driving down the cost of blade manufacturing is currently the biggest challenge in the turbine industry. “We have much to learn from Boeing in the way you automate the production of large structures. The tie-up with Boeing could help us drive down our production cost and therefore turbine prices, ensuring we make a step change in global competitiveness,” says Kristiansen.

Boeing is the first company from an adjacent industry that Vestas have partnered with.  Going forward, many other opportunities may flow from the relationship.

“The likes of Siemens have R&D budgets that we simply cannot match.  Our strategy is therefore to build an open innovation network which allows us to work with the world’s best research centers to jointly develop new technologies,’ concludes Finn Strøm Madsen, President of Vestas Technology R&D.