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Roll Forming

Polarized power

By Lynn Stanley

The Ivanpah solar thermal power system in California covers 3,500 acres and has more than 300,000 mirrors.

Fabricators apply mature press technology to new, innovative processes

February 2015 - At the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, which convened this month in Washington, D.C., experts from a cross-section of disciplines met to tackle the challenge of providing cheap, clean energy. Identifying disruptive technologies that can be fast-tracked from the lab to the marketplace is one approach under consideration by specialists, thought leaders and decision makers.

“The electricity industry over the next 20 years is going to be looking at changes the scale of which we haven’t seen in this industry for 100 years,” said Richard Lester at last year’s summit. Lester heads Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of nuclear science and engineering. NRG President and CEO David Crane, another participant in last year’s ARPA-E Summit, likens the scope of the change to the cell phone’s impact on fixed line telephones.

The equipment needed to support this major shift will bring a bumper crop of opportunities for metalformers. Fabricators that are wading into the sustainable energy space are eyeing cost-effective processing equipment like roll forming, an economical, repeatable operation able to provide close tolerances on part length, width and a range of cross section profiles. Many of these lines are being anchored with Airam pneumatic presses. Sales for the Covington, Ohio-based company grew 12 percent in 2014. Airam Press Co. Ltd., designs and builds standard and custom pneumatic presses for metalforming and roll forming applications as well as other processes. 

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Its pneumatic presses can prepunch, prenotch or preform parts and feed them to a roll former or perform the required cut-off operation at the end of a line. In many cases roll formers are using Airam presses at both the front and end of a line. The sturdy machine is cost efficient, environmentally friendly and flexible—features that fabricators, in the business of making parts for energy applications, scrutinize when making purchasing decisions.

Companies that want to gain a position on the short list for metal fabrication of alternative energy components and technologies are taking the time to understand the industry’s different facets. 

Renewable energy entered America’s mainstream marketplace roughly a decade ago on the heels of the country’s declining conventional, centralized electricity production system, better known as “the grid.” Growing consumer demand for safe, reliable and affordable power, climate change, and stringent environmental regulations, drives the need for clean energy. Carbon dioxide emissions produced by U.S. energy-related industries was estimated at nearly 40 percent in 2012, climbing another 2.5 percent in 2013. Several state and local governments are preparing for the impact of climate change through adaptation, a strategy that calls for regions to plan ahead for the deleterious effects of extreme weather. Temperature, precipitation and sea level changes, along with the frequency and severity of extreme events, are expected to affect energy in terms of how it’s produced, delivered and consumed.

Old is not new again

Crane suggested that rather than strengthen the grid, it’s time to scrap it. “It doesn’t make sense to build a 21st century electric system based on a system of 130 million wooden poles,” he said. “You can try and strengthen the system all you want but if you assume, in terms of climate change for example, that we’re in the first stages of adaptation, we have a system designed in the 1930s, and largely built between the 1930s and 1950s, that is just not up for the weather challenges of the 21st century.” 

Those in favor of updating the grid’s aging infrastructure with innovations like smart grid technology disagree.

While the debate over revamping the grid versus abandoning it continues, disruptive technologies are already making their way into American homes and businesses and creating demand for new manufacturing processes and parts from fabricators. Nearly 40 million homes currently rely on natural gas. Wind turbines generate about 4 percent of electricity consumed in U.S. Solar energy, both rooftop solar PV and utility-scale systems, represent perhaps the largest growth segment in the renewable energy space. 

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The Solar Energy Industries Association lists 799 major solar projects representing more than 43 GW of capacity in its database. Solar made up 36 percent of all new domestic electric capacity in 2014 and saw the second-largest quarter for solar installations during third quarter 2014. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Ikea and Macy’s are adopting solar at a high rate. Nearly 41 percent of Americans live within 20 miles of at least one of the solar installations listed by the SEIA. Current capacity is projected to offset 16.8 million metric tons of CO2 annually. 

Related job creation and economic activity is occurring not only in the Southwest, where most utility-scale solar power plants are located, but also in the heart of the Midwest’s manufacturing region. 

Metal fabrication is booming in this area, says Bob Gibson, vice president of education and communication for the Solar Electric Power Association. 

Gibson agrees that reliance on large, centralized station electricity is waning in favor of “clean energy sources distributed closer to customers.” 

“The solar market has progressed perhaps the fastest, moving from hand-built and assembled panels to mass production of components,” he says. “Demand has driven large-scale manufacturing. Engineered metal used to produce the mounting and racking systems for these solar systems is a critical element of this dynamic market.”

As part of the supply chain, Airam continues to see an uptick in sales for its pneumatic presses as well. “The fabricators that are specifying our pneumatic presses for their roll forming lines are primarily making parts for solar PV and utility-scale systems and components for proton exchange membrane fuel cells,” says Matt Barkman, sales manager. 

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Adapting to change

Customers are attracted to the simplicity of the machine’s design and the ease with which it can be integrated into a line, says Barkman. “Our Airam press can move in and out of the material three times faster when compared to similarly equipped hydraulic and mechanical presses without interrupting line production,” he says.

While Airam’s customers will admit they have opted for the air press over other machines, they don’t want to talk about what they are making and tend to regard the Airam press as “a secret weapon,” Barkman claims. 

“They are taking established press technology and applying it in new ways to form parts for these emerging markets. They are developing new processes in-house and integrating the press into their operations.”

The ability to meet tight tolerances is critical for solar and fuel cell applications. Airam works with customers to equip its presses with blades that are produced to their specifications. “We’re currently working on a design-build where the blade is a critical component of the press system,” says Barkman. “We precision machine these blades from tool steel.”

Without the air press, roll forming lines would be unable to finish parts or hold part tolerances. 

Airam presses can perform multiple operations for both small and large part fabrication and have a production uptime of 98 percent—capabilities that fabricators depend on as they adapt production to changing customer needs. Airam is also embracing the changes. 

“We’re busy with orders for roll formers,” Barkman says. “The ability to support the technologies needed for industries like energy has broadened our playing field to consider other new markets.” FFJ

Sources

  • Airam Press Co. Ltd.
    Covington, Ohio
    phone: 937/473-5672
    fax: 937/473-5012
    www.airam.com

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