You might think the U.S. has lots of gear-making capacity, so why would a start-up envision a factory capable of more of the same? The answer lies in the size of the gears planned by Vela Gear Systems CEO Noel Davis. Gears required in the wind industry can be in excess of 6 ft in diameter, while gearboxes weigh up to 20 tons. In addition, the nation has more than 30,000 utility grade wind turbines, where every year more approach the end of their warrantees and some near retirement. This means many may need gearbox repairs or replacements.
Davis and his colleagues are well acquainted with wind turbine gearboxes. He ticks off the types that will need repair and possibly replacement: “A planetary gearbox for a typical 200-ft high 1.5-MW wind turbine weighs more than 15 tons. Its sun gear has about a 24-in. diameter and 5-ft length, three planet gears each with about a 30-in. diameter. The ring gear has about a 70-in. diameter while spur or helical gear easily have 40-in. diameters. The output pinion driving the generator can weigh a hundred pounds. There are also smaller gear drives that pitch the three blades to catch the wind, and azimuth drives to rotate the entire 100-ton nacelle to face the wind.” None of these large slewing rings and gearboxes are small enough to be handled at the more frequently encountered automotive gear facilities.”
What’s more, says Davis, main-drive gearboxes have individual components that may weigh up to 10,000 lb, and when assembled, 20 tons. These components cannot be lifted by hand and require lifting equipment and an overhead clearance beyond what is available in most automotive-component facilities. Lifting large components, such as 6-ft diameter gears in and out of machine tools, then assembling them into a 20-ton gearbox, and then onto a flatbed truck for transport, requires a taller gantry cranes than those at most facilities. And the next generation wind turbines are just getting bigger. In the end, Davis sees a purpose-built facility just for wind-turbine gears.
But where to build? Davis starts sketching a Venn diagram with three circles in North America: the location of wind farms, the location of raw material, and the location of the skilled labor. “Wind farms are mostly in the middle of the Midwest. Steel comes mostly from the areas spanning Milwaukee to Pittsburgh, and skilled machinists needed for this business are found in automotive manufacturing states. These three circles intersectd in Indiana, an ideal location for this business,” he says. Marion, Indiana to be specific.
Davis also has ideas for financing this ambitious venture. “I have some money from the sale of a previous company that I have put up. The Chamber of Commerce for Marion has also secured a hundred million dollars in bonds. But those convert only if we can drum up enough business to fund the debt of the bonds.”
He figures that his skilled workers will earn $23 per hour with a fully burdened rate of $40 per hour, while Europeans are importing this product at $60 per hour plus ad extra 15% of the total cost for ocean freight and logistics to North American wind farms from European manufacturing sites. Bottom line is that a promise from OEMs to build about 20 gearboxes each year will be the minimum needed to secure the bonds. Soon after that, Davis sees groundbreaking on the new factory, laying the foundation, ordering the machine tools, and hiring the staff.
Washington is fond of patting itself on the back for its gutsy calls, that in hindsight, are not terribly difficult. Building a new factory in American is the real gutsy call.