Recharge4040: Theo Botha

Theo Botha: 'There is no place for artisan manufacturing methods'

Theo Botha: 'There is no place for artisan manufacturing methods'

Theo Botha’s mission is nothing less than to reinvent the way that wind turbine blades are designed, manufactured and assembled, allowing the industry to reduce costs, build bigger blades and establish a new standard of quality control.

“We saw a need for significant improvements in quality, in the deployment of capital and in the supply chain because manufacturing of longer blades out of longer pieces was getting exponentially harder, more expensive and less flexible,” Botha tells Recharge. “Almost eight years later, our technology is ready to be a complete game-changer for the blades required in the future.”

Botha points out that Blade Dynamics’ component-based approach to blade production enables local manufacturing content, which is especially important offshore, where costs are considerably higher than for onshore wind. Road-transportable subcomponents can be supplied by established domestic composites manufacturers, so the very largest blades can be assembled with a tiny fraction of the capex required to build a dedicated conventional blade manufacturing facility, but still use 100% local content.

“Building things out of very long parts means building things in one big, expensive place. The parts supply chain, which is possible because of transportable subcomponents, will give the turbine manufacturers a great deal of flexibility in blade supply, which has historically been extremely difficult due to the high set-up costs of factories and difficulty of transporting components,” says Botha.

In terms of the key question of reliability, Blade Dynamics’ approach is based on controlling manufacturing variation, with the aim being “six sigma” (almost 100% defect-free) manufacturing processes that can deliver thousands of identical blades. “There is no place for artisan manufacturing methods,” says Botha. “The innate manufacturing variation of small, accurate parts is far lower than in larger components.” He points out that the parts Blade Dynamics is making for the UK’s Energy Technologies Institute-funded 6MW prototype blade are about 30 metres long, which is still very large for a composite component. “These are hardly small, but they are manageable and highly controllable,” he says.

Blade Dynamics’ technology has been designed around quality systems used in the automotive industry and Botha says his company plans to introduce automation into parts manufacture and blade assembly, to improve quality standards “in the not-too-distant future”. “We are also introducing manufacturing platforms for blades, which will have commonality of structural subcomponents, which will save unnecessary costs.”

As an example of what has been achieved so far, Botha says that Blade Dynamics’ first set of 49-metre blades were within 10kg of each other straight out of the assembly jig, a small fraction of what can be obtained from conventional technology. “This is unprecedented in wind and illustrates this marriage of aerospace performance, quality and reliability with industrial costs,” he says. Producing parts with very low variation translates into an extremely consistent mechanical performance.

“This is vital because it enables us to design our components with higher materials allowable numbers,” says Botha. “In other words, more accurate and consistent manufacturing means you can use less material to build the very same blade. This saves cost and weight.”

Another key area has been working with adhesive joints between the subcomponents of the turbine blades. “All wind turbine blades are assembled from subcomponents and have joints, and this is equally true for Dreamliner wings,” says Botha. “In the end, the only thing that matters is process control, also known as quality, which is the reason our company was established.”

Conventional blade manufacturing has meant essentially joining two huge pieces together with a very long line of adhesive, which Botha says is difficult to control and “has ultimately caused plenty of blades to break in the field.” Blade Dynamics’ blades have more jointed sections, but use less adhesive because the joints are much thinner. The joints are also very wide, making them less stressed, as well as lighter. For Botha, this is “simply the result of making things at a manageable scale”.

UK-based Botha describes himself and his team as “materials scientists, structural engineers and composites-processing technologists, with a holistic understanding of the unique challenges of manufacturing blades”. For now, Blade Dynamics is making blades in-house until its technology is fully industrialised. After that, however, the company will step up its work with sub-suppliers and begin to license its technology to global turbine manufacturers.

Profile

Botha, 35, co-founded Blade Dynamics in 2007 and remains a co-owner of the company.

Blade Dynamics was the first commercial tenant of Nasa and the company is currently building a prototype high-performance blade for Siemens’ 6MW offshore turbine. Groundbreaking 100-metre offshore blades are on the drawing board.

Before starting the firm with two former colleagues, Botha worked in the field of composite materials supply for wind turbine blades, and has spent his career in advanced composites and wind energy. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics, and a master’s in finance, both from Exeter University.

Theo Botha is co-founder/head of sales and marketing at Blade Dynamics

Recharge4040 brings together the world's young new-energy pioneers from the worlds of renewables technology, finance, development, social engagement and advocacy. The list includes people from major wind and solar companies, banks, investment funds, crowd-funding platforms and governments. For the full list of nominees and news about the initiative, visit the 4040 website

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