Manufacturing Versus Remanufacturing: A Technician’s Perspective

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Not all wind energy students plan to climb towers for a living. Fortunately, there are plenty of career opportunities for Ecotech Institute grads that don’t require them to leave the safety and security of terra firma. Two options that I discuss at length in the classroom are jobs in manufacturing of turbines and components as well as remanufacturing.

Turbine and component manufacturing

If you were to follow Colorado news regarding turbine manufacturing employment in the wind industry, you might think that employees are all hired and laid off routinely as they ride the waves of the on-again/off-again Production Tax Credit and the turbine sales that spike every time it is renewed. For a young, unmarried technician with little more than a car payment and some student loans, this rollercoaster is nothing to worry about. But for the rest of us, the impression of a lack of job security may dissuade us from considering employment options in turbine manufacturing. In actuality, we may be doing ourselves and our careers a major disservice by steering our careers clear of the factories, however. After all, we cannot ignore how impressive the numbers look for wind turbine manufacturing employment.

• Up to 7,000 jobs in Colorado are credited to the wind industry, the vast majority of them in the manufacturing and supply chain sector.
• Vestas Colorado manufacturing facilities employ around 3,000 people.
• Vestas plans to add 600 more Colorado employees for manufacturing.
• More than one quarter of U.S. wind energy jobs are in manufacturing.
• More than 500 supply chain/manufacturing facilities are spread out amongst 43 states.

Clearly, the occasional news headlines announcing a few hundred layoffs look more like a small market correction than a true crash. Since mid-2013, Vestas, under the leadership of Anders Runevad, has implemented efficiency measures and restructuring that has turned the company around to show healthy growth and profits. Rather than sell a Pueblo, Colorado tower factory, the Pueblo facility is operating at full throttle building tower sections to meet high demand. Sales are booming as our industry enjoys the residual effects of the most recent Production Tax Credit for safe-harbored development projects. Will a new PTC for 2015 keep the party rolling? We certainly hope so!

Compared to remanufacturing

Mention “remanufacturing” in a group of uptower technicians and you’re likely to receive comments that might be better suited to describe rebuilt and counterfeit electronics from Asia. For reasons of propriety, most remanufacturing facilities are not openly discussed. Therefore, their virtues are quietly extolled by a handful of discrete advocates. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) might set them up in nondescript warehouses with small lettering on one door to ensure UPS and FedEx know where to find them. Press releases are almost unheard of, and tours for outsiders are often forbidden.

Why is such careful discretion regarding remanufacturing a common practice in our industry? OEM representatives will never utter the word “recall”, but this is essentially what most remanufacturing projects are all about. While OEM sales departments fight for market share in America, arguably the world’s largest potential market for turbine sales, the last thing they need is for would-be customers to learn about serial gearbox, generator, or blade issues. Warrantied or not, turbine downtime is costly. OEM asset managers carefully dance around the topic in discussions with customers to explain why a crane will be visiting several turbines over the next few weeks. Engineers scramble to resolve the serial issues quickly and quietly. Process work instructions (PWIs) are drafted and revised as technicians and engineers collaborate to develop cost-effective solutions.

When skillfully managed, the outcome of such projects can be a wealth of knowledge regarding failure modes of components. Brand new techniques are often developed on the fly with astonishing results. In fact, this author has seen components roll out of a remanufacturing facility that are better than factory new! Performance increases beyond customer expectations can draw attention that OEMs may not appreciate. An overexposed successful recall program might gain so much positive attention that the OEM must alter their dialogue and call it something like a “Component Upgrade Program.” Soon, customers will want to know why only some of their warrantied turbines are receiving this upgrade.

Secrecy is a necessary aspect of many remanufacturing projects. Loose lips sink ships; OEMs can lose millions if the public perception is not carefully controlled. So proud, accomplished technicians and engineers that deserve to brag about saving the day must quietly lurk in the shadows.

It should be noted that not all remanufacturing is provided by OEMs, and therefore they do not all have to operate under a shroud of secrecy. Shermco Industries rebuilds motors and generators in addition to many other services. Gearbox Express provides better-than-factory gearboxes built from OEM cores. As long as representatives from these companies aren’t sharing damaging or otherwise proprietary OEM information, they benefit by singing their praises from the rooftops. It’s clear what they have to offer, and nobody needs to apologize for it.

Side-by-side comparison

Manufacturing and remanufacturing are options for our students who do not wish to climb turbines. But how would an entry-level job applicant choose between these options?
From a technician’s perspective, manufacturing and remanufacturing share a few things in common.

• They both involve an assembly process, which is obvious.
• They both tend to be located in or near cities as opposed to wind farm jobs, which are usually at least an hour from the nearest city if not several hours.
• Beefy overhead cranes offer safety and versatility in material handling that a turbine’s gantry crane cannot offer.
• Access for engineers is easier to manage than an uptower visit.
• Tools do not have to be transported and lifted uptower, nor are they limited in size and power.
• Specialist technicians trained in the PWI’s are not usually required to travel for their job.
• Overtime is often expected and/or offered to technicians in both types of facilities.

How do manufacturing and remanufacturing differ from a technician’s perspective?

• Bolting new components together to build a new turbine or component doesn’t require deep knowledge of how a wind turbine functions, but helping to diagnose a failure mode in a component does.
• Disassembly of a failed or deteriorating component is very messy work requiring endless housekeeping, whereas a factory floor is often kept nearly spotless with little effort.
• Manufacturing a turbine exposes technicians to the opportunity to learn about all of the components rather than a single one that happens to be prone to failure.
• Manufacturing technicians might spend their entire day performing one small task on an assembly line. A remanufacturing technician will likely be responsible for solving problems that look different with every component that passes through their station.
• Manufacturing technicians might be laid off when sales slump. Remanufacturing technicians might be laid off when a recall program has been completed but is not at the mercy of the PTC.
• Manufacturing technicians often work with a large team of managers in a facility and therefore have ample opportunity to be recognized and promoted for their skill and dedication. Remanufacturing technicians tend to be part of a much smaller team with far fewer managers, but they become specialists in a particular component.

Well-rounded approach

There are no rules forbidding a technician from migrating back and forth between manufacturing and remanufacturing. In fact, this practice can help a wind energy worker avoid the unemployment line during the dips in the rollercoaster ride that is the PTC. The knowledge base to be gained from such two-sided experience can be leveraged to propel a technician to quick promotions and raises as he or she would quickly prove to be too valuable to lose regardless of the current state of industry subsidies like the PTC.