Report on the Drivetrain Reliability Collaborative 2023 Workshop

I’ve been at the Drivetrain Reliability Collaborative 2023 Workshop at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, this week. The DRC is an NREL-led initiative to bring stakeholders together from across the operations and maintenance (O&M) community to share experience and advance understanding of the challenges in drivetrain reliability. The DRC grew out of the Gearbox Reliability Collaborative (GRC), and has been going for around 10 years.

While the event itself was 75% attendees from North America, there were also folks from European bearing and drivetrain manufacturers, research organisations, and wind farm owner / operators. This was the first event since 2020 due to COVID-19, so there was lots of catching up to do - and around 200 attendees.

From a startup’s perspective, there was a lot of good stuff. My own focus is digitalisation so bear that in mind, but…

  1. There’s lots of good understanding about the physics of bearing wearing and failure
  2. There’s not enough information about failures in the public domain, but there are initiatives (such as EPRI’s WINNER benchmarking tools, or OREC’s Sparta dataset) to start to quantify reliability and build datasets. Some of these data are public domain, but there are also value-add subscriptions.
  3. There are effective predictive maintenance tools out there, but …
  4. Companies struggle to move from reactive maintenance to predictive maintenance because it is a change in mindset and often requires retrofits. One person noted “it’s more an adoption problem than a technical problem”.
  5. Getting data out of turbines and to users is really challenging for many folks. There are too many turbine data formats, too many intermediate database systems with proprietary formats, and lots of walled gardens.

We dug in to the topic of digitalisation quite a bit. There was a lot to learn there:

  1. It’s clear that people see access to data as one of the chief benefits of digitalisation, but we should also recognise that data is actually a requirement for digitalisation; data is the thing that allows the new ways of thinking and new business models that are the hallmarks of digitalisation.
  2. We aren’t yet seeing some of the same new business concepts for wind energy as e.g. aviation, where drivetrain suppliers sell jet engine operating hours.
  3. There’s a lot of hope that digitalisation will simplify a lot of O&M processes. This includes things like predictive maintenance making it easer to schedule maintenance and avoid unplanned outages (especially offshore), to the use of robots or drone for inspections or maintenance.
  4. A lot of digitalisation ideas feel like replacing existing approaches with their digital analogs. I suspect this is because it is all still new - once we get more experience in this area, new business ideas will probably start sprouting.

What does this mean for startups and innovators?

  1. It’s all about adoption. The customer or user really doesn’t care about the technology under the hood; they want to see the benefits of a new idea, want to have confidence that it will be worth the effort, and want to be sure that it won’t bring extra risk.
  2. Don’t push customers to change too much, too quickly. Swap item B for item A - but don’t expect people to adopt totally new approaches right at the start. Design new products or solutions for ease of integration with existing processes and systems.
  3. Partnerships with recognised testing centers like NREL, Fraunhofer, OREC, TüV and others will really help overcoming initial reluctance.

I think there will be a report on the meeting in the next few weeks - month, which I’ll share when I have it.

N.B.: I am in no way affiliated with NREL or the DRC