Michigan Companies Seizing the 'New Energy' Opportunity

Mechanical Assemblies
Photo courtesy of K&M Machine Fabricating, Inc.

Technology Innovators and Suppliers are Building a New Supply Chain for Wind Turbine Parts

As the U.S. automotive industry comes to grips with a transformation that is likely to include greater numbers of higher fuel-efficiency vehicles in the short term, and hybrid and electric vehicles in the long term, a growing number of manufacturing suppliers in the State of Michigan are setting their sights on the next wave of innovation. Ann Arbor-based Danotek Motion Technologies, for example, is specializing in the development and manufacturing of high-efficiency permanent magnet (PM) generators and electronics power converters for alternative energy and advanced automotive applications. Danotek has been attracting significant interest from large-scale wind turbine manufacturers and top-tier venture capital firms impressed with the company's potential to bring breakthrough efficiencies to the $37 billion wind power generation industry. The company raised $14.5 million last fall from CMEA Ventures, StatoilHydro unit StatoilHydro Venture, and GE unit GE Energy Financial Services, receiving half of the funding in an initial $7.25 million round that closed in September.

Why such confidence in this relatively small, seven year-old company? Danotek's patent-pending variable speed Permanent Magnet Generators reportedly can save more than $1 million per turbine for wind farm developers and wind turbine original equipment manufacturers over the life of a turbine. Boasting efficiency rates exceeding 98%, the PM generators are significantly more efficient than conventional generators and perform well at low wind speeds. They're smaller and half the weight of conventional generators, with high power density. And because they don't contain wear-and-tear parts, they're more reliable, with "zero cogging," and substantially reduce the maintenance and operating costs of wind turbines, Danotek says.

"The capital infusion from top-tier, long-term investors will allow us to expand manufacturing and support our entry into the wind turbine original equipment manufacturers' market with generators capable of producing up to three megawatts," Danotek CEO Dan Gizaw said in a statement on the initial $7.25 million funding round, led by CMEA Ventures and StatoilHydro Venture. "We will also scale up generator development for larger direct drives and offshore units." Danotek is planning to move to a larger facility in Plymouth Township, Mich., that will accommodate production of 3-megawatt (MW) variable speed PM generators. Its expansion is projected to create more than 350 new jobs, including 140 directly by Danotek, according to an economic analysis conducted by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

CMEA Ventures Senior Partner James Kim said that its energy and materials group reviewed 1,500 potential green energy deals in the 12 months prior to the funding round and invested in only four, including Danotek. The others were Luminus Devices, a developer and manufacturer of patented LEDs, and two university spinouts, which Kim declined to discuss because they're still in stealth mode.

"First, we like the wind industry," Kim wrote in an email to Design-2-Part Magazine, explaining what it is about Danotek that inspires CMEA's confidence as an investor. "This is an established industry with an established supply chain, and wind will continue to be a major component of the power generation mix going forward. Second, the benefits of permanent magnet generator technology are significant--higher efficiency, higher reliability, smaller size, and less weight. These factors translate into better economics for wind farm operators. Third, the management team has significant experience with product development, scaling, and manufacturing--all key factors in making an investment in the energy space. Fourth, they are engaged with several major turbine manufacturers, so there is clear market interest for their technology."

Any technology that improves the economics of wind power generation is of interest, according to Kim. "This includes improving efficiency at the generator level, reducing turbine weight, lowering transportation costs (these things are huge!), and improving performance at non-optimal wind regimes," he explained. "What gives Danotek the efficiency advantage versus traditional generators is the fact that Danotek generates a magnetic field from permanent magnets. Traditional three-phase asynchronous generators can't do this. Danotek's generators don't need brushes or slip rings, and benefit from reduced cogging." Kim also made clear that in the wind power industry, it's not enough to have great technology. Equally important, he confirms, is a team "that knows how to scale its business and forge partnerships with existing players in the industry." Danotek, he says, has engaged with several major wind turbine manufacturers. "I can't reveal all of them at present due to confidentiality," he stated. "Additionally, the team has deep experience in the automotive industry and with major companies, including GE, Emerson, Ford, and Cummins."

Makers of Large Parts Tooling Up for Growth in Wind Power Industry

Mechanical Assemblies
Photo courtesy of K&M Machine Fabricating, Inc.

Commercial-grade wind turbines for land and offshore applications are becoming larger and larger in size, prompting some suppliers to the wind market to boost their capacity to manufacture large turbine parts. One is K&M Machine Fabricating, Inc. (www.k-mm.com), a Cassopolis, Michigan-based company in the midst of a $20 million expansion project that will add 52,000 square feet to its machine shop and bring 120 new employees into the fold. An ISO 9001:2000 certified manufacturer whose clients have included Clipper Windpower, Gamesa, and GE Wind, K&M Machine Fabricating offers capabilities in machining, fabricating, plate burning, and assembly. The company raised eyebrows at last September's International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago, when it announced the purchase of three large, new milling machines that reportedly enable the firm to "machine virtually any size hub, bedplate, or gearbox in the wind industry."

According to K&M Chief Financial Officer, Gary J. Galeziewski, the additional capacity will allow the company to machine components for commercial-grade turbines capable of generating 2.5 to 3 megawatts of power on land and 4 to 7 MW off shore. The new acquisitions include an SNK HF-7M high speed bridge milling machine, offering 11 meters of x-travel and 4.7 meters of y-travel; a Mitsubishi MVR35 5-face vertical bridge mill, with 6.2 meters of x-travel and 3.5 meters of y-travel; and an M-HT (Mitsubishi) 13/1618 horizontal boring mill, with 3 meters of x-travel and 2.5 meters of y-travel. Also scheduled to arrive early this year are a PAMA Speedram 2000/3 horizontal boring mill, offering 20 meters of x-travel and 5 meters of y-travel, and a PAMA Speedmat 3/TR16 two-pallet horizontal boring mill, providing 3 meters of x-travel and 2.5 meters of y-travel. Complementing the new machines is a Delta Slant Classic Gantry CMM.

K&M has been producing parts for wind turbine manufacturers for more than a decade, beginning with the Zond Corporation in the 1990s. Serving the wind power industry, Galeziewski says, made sense because the company had already established itself as a supplier to the mining equipment, off-road construction and agricultural equipment, and traditional power generation industries, all of which require large components. "We've developed a good reputation of service in other sectors, and wind leveraged our core competencies," says Galeziewski. "Machining and fabricating to a very large scale is something we do very well." Wind turbine components manufactured by K&M typically require machining of either cast components or fabricated steel plate. Many of the parts, especially hubs and gearboxes, are typically made of ductile iron castings, although some bedplates and gearboxes can be made from fabricated steel plate. Horizontal boring, vertical gantry milling, plate burning, and flux core welding of heavy plates are some of the manufacturing processes that K&M uses to manufacture the components.

Of course, the sheer physical size of the parts makes them very challenging to manufacture, influencing everything from measurement and inspection capabilities to handling requirements. Because the parts are too big to put on a CMM, the company uses a portable FARO laser tracking device for inspection. And because heat builds up during machining, they require a different type of gauging that compensates for temperature. One of the bed plates, according to Galeziewski, is a 36,000-pound casting that's 10 feet in diameter and over 6 feet tall. It needs to be machined on several surfaces and then flipped over for more machining--not an easy task.

"Manufacturing for the wind power industry is as demanding as you'd find in mining or in automotive," says Galeziewski. "Some major OEMs are saying that it will be as demanding as aerospace. We have to hold true position on dowel holes of 0.05mm over a span of 2000 mm."

K&M Machine Fabricating has demonstrated its ability to meet these demands, Galeziewski says, by combining high quality standards with extensive process knowledge. "Our speed in developing parts and processes, including fixtures and tooling, is one of our major strengths," he says. "We have a substantial array of machines and complete vertical integration that enables us to provide our own plate burning, fabrication, welding, and machining."

Besides offering the flexibility needed to quickly incorporate design changes, K&M's new machines allow for minimal part movement, thereby saving time and production costs. On its vertical gantry milling machines, for example, the company can begin by milling a part vertically from the top. It can then slot a right-angle head onto the machine to begin machining other surfaces of the part without removing it from the fixture. Galeziewski sees a bright future in manufacturing for the wind power industry, saying "It looks very strong. There's been a convergence of public policy--with Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) in more than half the states--and market acceptance of a proven technology. And a lot of foreign OEMs are setting up shop in the United States and want U.S. sources."

Another company with designs on the wind power industry is Dowding Industries (www.dowdingindustries.com), which opened a new 35,000-square-foot large-part machining facility last summer in Eaton Rapids, Michigan, to serve the needs of the wind power, construction, mining, aerospace, and agriculture industries. Dowding, an ISO 9001:2000 certified contract manufacturer of metal stampings, precision laser cut parts, and fabricated assemblies, purchased three huge machine tools from MAG Industrial Automation Systems to outfit the new facility, operated by its subsidiary, Dowding Machining.  The new machinery includes a MAG Cincinnati U5-1500 five-axis profiler, which enables the firm to set up multiple parts along the rail length and process them sequentially to support 24/7 production. It also includes a MAG Giddings & Lewis PT 1800 horizontal boring mill, a four-axis machine with a removable rotary table for an optional fifth axis. Dowding had been looking for opportunities to grow and recognized the potential for wind turbines and alternative energy, according to Jeff Metts, president of Dowding Machining. "We saw an opportunity to be part of the 'new energy' solution," Metts said in a statement.

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