Friday, 24 October 2008

Product Engineering in Renewables and CleanTech

This week Debby Lloyd has been immersed in engineering and product development in the renewables industry. Here are some of her thoughts...


There are some organisations globally renowned for their engineering R&D capabilities – some already have provenance in areas of "cleantech" as it’s moved into mainstream product development. Selected organisations have been involved in some of the most technically challenging high profile projects in the world with leading manufacturing organisations.

I recently spent a whole day at one such organisation at a new R&D engineering facility specifically built for the Cleantech sector. Imagine the scenario of being able to take your pick from more than a 1,000 engineers around the world with deep engineering expertise across all disciplines (structural, mechanical, electronics, controls, manufacturing etc) - marshalling and deploying them into the engineering challenges and opportunities presented by the renewable energy sectors.

When I look at who is providing similar services in terms of engineering consultancy for renewable energy product development I fear some will always be constrained in their development and offerings by their capitalisation and size. I also think there’s a tendency to be very "one dimensional" in their thinking. There are organisations in existence that are well versed to working and collaborating with leading OEMs across "same industry" sectors. As a result they emerge as real "centres of excellence" and become the industry "go to". This can be replicated for renewables – especially wind and tidal. So it’s encouraging to see renowned engineering organisations move into renewables and bring with them their alternative working practices that could benefit Wind Turbine Manufacturers and the wider cleantech community. The difficulty is they need credible renewables individuals to lead them into this space who are, of course, in short supply – and where we come in!

Some of these organisations have the capabilities to go far deeper into practical product development, testing and onwards to manufacturing issues rather than traditional "paper focused" consulting firms.

My personal perception (and feel free to challenge me on this) of R&D in the renewable energy sector is that it sometimes appears very "insular" and there is real reluctance to "go outside" for deeper expertise and alternative thinking which can reside in for example Aerospace, Defence & Automotive sectors. The need to protect IP is another reason. All these issues are born in part from the necessity of having grown from grass roots beginnings where self sufficiency is key for a variety of reasons – cost being a big one.

However maybe now is the time for different thinking – and options. There are engineering organisations steeped in dealing with such issues that can pull on years of engineering history and OEM collaboration from other vertical market sectors. These organisations bring new perspectives and techniques to the renewables sector that can really drive product innovation forward.

We’re working with some of them, its very exciting to watch what they can bring to the party.

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