Vestas Wind Systems, A/S is the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world. It has nearly 20,000 employees and has installed 56,000 wind turbines, 3,000 of them last year, and is showing strong growth. Wind turbines are complex machines, with upwards of 40,000 parts. In response to demand, they are becoming increasingly configurable, with a variety of options, and are manufactured in plants worldwide. The challenges of manufacturing complex and highly configurable devices in a wide range of plants and locations means that Vestas can benefit enormously from greater transparency in its design, manufacturing, shipping, and maintenance process.
Documentation can be a sticking point in complex processes
While Vestas does its CAD design in PTC Creo and has bill of materials management, when it comes to the process documentation, it still must do it in MS Word, and the process is highly manual, with significant retyping, resulting in errors and delays. Their goal is to simplify the process of creating both process and service documentation.
Connecting engineering and the shop floor
Engineering/design and the shop floor have traditionally been quite different realms, and the biggest issue in integration has been how to smooth the information flow between them. How do you drive organizational changes that align these functions? Solutions architects often go through a great deal of trouble to implement that flow—only to see the added intelligence get removed, and a PDF delivered to the floor.
But, in the end, getting a complex product from initial concept to working in the field is a team sport. Keeping that in mind makes it easier to find a workable process. The solution is made easier by product lifecycle management (PLM) software such as PTC’s Windchill MPMLink, which allows manufacturing to operate in sync with engineering.
A key consideration is ease of use. The software has to be intuitive and easy to run. Busy shop floor workers can’t change their process to accommodate complex software with steep learning curves.
Vestas finds that the best way to get the connection working is to find advocates on the shop floor and have their own need for a solution provide the motivation. The engineering team provides coaching and support, but, ultimately, the best solution comes from the users.
Tracking the digital thread
The end result of changing a phased process of handoff and paper documentation to one that is continuous and connected is often called the “digital thread”. This enables tracking the product forward, from concept all the way through customer delivery, and then providing product use information back, from customer all the way back to design.
Direct feedback from the customer is not something design engineers are used to incorporating into their process, and they can be confused or overwhelmed if the communication process is not managed well. But everyone acknowledges that their team must now include the customer, who is brought in via the Internet of Things.
Managing worldwide manufacturing
Vestas has eight different global production sites, as well as a significant number of subcontractors, and so needs agile integration of lifecycle management across the organization. Given client needs and location, where should this particular turbine be built and shipped from, and via what method? Shipping method actually has an impact on product design, so getting to the most effective answer is not as obvious as it might seem. The impact on total delivered cost can be significant.
In addition, many newly industrialized nations have requirements for local content. Brazil, for example, requires that anything manufactured on its soil include 20 percent local content. The result can be significant variability from one installed turbine to another. Whenever field service goes out to a remote location, it has to know exactly what is in the turbine they are servicing. No one wants to end up at a mid-ocean wind tower with a missing or incorrect part.
What is needed is total transparency from the product as designed, the product as manufactured, the product as sold, and all the way through to the product as it is now, operating in its specific location.
Predictive service and wind condition analytics
Vestas currently continually monitors 80 percent of its units currently in the field. The company thus has an extensive database of how well each design does in which conditions. Wind turbines are increasingly designed to take into account such specific considerations as wind speed, variability in wind direction, turbulence, gust frequency and intensity, temperature range, site accessibility, and noise limits.
Not only does Vestas increasingly monitor and understand those effects, it also adds to its bottom line by selling that data to weather prediction businesses.
Information is part of the product
Vestas wind turbines use information as well as wind, and produce information as well as electricity. As it continues to implement the internet of things, those information flows will only grow.
Image by Sandia Labs on Flickr (CC by 2.0)
A former engineer, Alex is now a writer on technical and healthcare business topics. He also provides marketing content for technical and healthcare businesses of all kinds at www.sturdywords.com.