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A long, hot summer stresses global energy networks


This summer, the heat is spiking in the 100-degree Fahrenheit range in the U.S.—while Europe and Asia suffer unusual temperatures in the 30s Celsius—for days at a time. The power drain from air conditioning is causing brownouts and blackouts. That reminds us that it’s a fragile electrical grid standing between us and calamity. In fact, the U.S. energy infrastructure scored only a D+ on the last American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. And the problem is global. Rising demand for energy in countries like the rapidly developing BRIC nations will strain their energy generation and delivery system too.

In its study, Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Electricity Infrastructure, ASCE projects an investment gap in the U.S. reaching $107 billion by 2020—about $11 billion a year—and almost $732 billion by 2040. As the title suggests, utilities, governments, and consumers are putting off the reckoning until tomorrow.

The good news is that manufacturing innovations will make dollars go farther. The new Energy Manufacturing 2012 special issue of Manufacturing Engineering magazine highlights some examples:


For wind generation, materials and revolutionary production strategies will be game-changers. Using carbon fiber rather than glass for reinforcement in blades, and compacted graphite iron (CGI), aluminum, or titanium alloys instead of cast iron for rotor hubs, could cut the weight of turbines in half, which would also shrink the size and cost of towers and foundations.

Factories can be thousands of miles from the wind farm, and moving turbines and blades can account for one third of their cost. Why not fabricate the blades on site? Technology for constructing large buildings in remote locations is being developed by the U.S. Army. By adapting these technologies to install what’s being called modular and transportable in site manufacturing (MTIM) factories at isolated wind farm locations may soon be possible. Besides manufacturing new blades, the MTIM factories could build more efficient replacement blades at existing wind farms, and could even grind up and package old blades to more easily transport them for recycling.

Oil and Gas

Drilling for oil undersea, in oil sands, in shales, and in the Arctic drives the need for new high performance well designs. Testing massive casing and liner designs for mechanical and thermal stresses is costly and difficult. The task is made more manageable, however, as today’s finite element analysis (FEA) simulation software replaces some of the physical tests formerly required for evaluating early stage design alternatives.

Manufacturing Gigantic Parts

Inspecting immense parts is critical. Innovation and research in the energy industry is resulting in much more complex designs, making the task tougher. In response, innovations like today’s laser tracking and measurement technologies are becoming available. Helpful not only in the manufacturing of new equipment, laser scanning can also record reference points on site in power stations to ensure that turbines dismantled for inspection and servicing are reassembled correctly, minimizing time offline.

Heavy industry manufacturers are also borrowing expertise and technologies from the auto industry, supersizing machines to cut cycle times and increase productivity while still maintaining exacting tolerances.

We need faster technology transfer

Transferring technology innovations from lab to industry, or from one industry to another is slow and haphazard. Manufacturing leaders need to change this. And it’s not that difficult. Managers and engineers need more opportunities to cross-pollinate in more diverse conferences and to benchmark practices outside industry bounds. Hiring from outside a company’s industry should be a more common practice, even though it may take a new hire longer to get acclimated. Companies need to value and foster career trajectories with lateral moves and unusual combinations of experience.

Manufacturing innovation is reducing the cost of increasing, replacing, and operating global energy facilities. Is this enough to close the investment gap? While manufacturing may not be able to do the whole job, leaders must create the conditions required for accelerated manufacturing innovation. It’s vital to providing a more secure energy infrastructure for our children and grandchildren.

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years. She publishes the blogs, Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

    August 06, 2012

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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