How Timken Harnessed the Perfect Storm—and Made Wind Energy More Viable

Wind energy technology improved dramatically over the past decade, as wind turbines became giant feats of engineering, towering over the landscape or floating in the sea. A single turbine today can power thousands of homes and takes just three to six months to recoup the costs of producing, operating, and recycling itself over its 20- to 25-year lifetime, according to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC).

In its 2017 market update, the GWEC declared, “Wind power is in rapid transition to becoming a fully commercialized, unsubsidized technology, successfully competing in the marketplace against heavily subsidized fossil and nuclear incumbents.” China led the world’s US$107 billion wind energy investment in 2017, with the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and India following in close succession. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), wind is on track to supply 10% of U.S. electricity by 2020, and already powers 26 million homes across 41 states today.

Timken has played a significant role in that progress, working with wind energy customers and partners to deliver the scale and performance necessary to turn wind into a viable energy source. In the past 10 years, Timken’s wind energy business grew from US$20 million to $150 million, as the industry recognized the company’s leadership and technical innovation.

Timing was key for Timken’s entry into wind

Because it’s so expensive to perform maintenance on a wind turbine that stands 500 feet above the ground or floats 15 miles out to sea, customers today place a high value on reliable, maintenance-free turbine powertrain solutions. However, that wasn’t always the case.

Ajay Das, vice president of strategy and business development at Timken, was charged with developing the company’s wind energy business back in 2007. As turbine size had increased, so had the complexity of the design—and existing designs weren’t up to the task. Turbines built to last 20 years needed major gearbox rebuilds within seven to ten years, at a cost upwards of $300,000, or $1.2 million over the life of the turbine.

Ajay Das, vice president of strategy and business development at Timken, was behind the company's entry into the wind energy business in 2007.

“That’s when Timken got in,” says Das. When turbines were smaller, the loads on bearings were not as high and turbine designers could get away with sub-optimal bearing solutions. Timken served the market very selectively until turbines got to the multi-megawatt capacity. Then, it became clear that investing in more technically advanced bearings could dramatically improve the lifecycle value of a turbine.

“Investing in wind was a decision involving several million dollars,” says Das, and the future of the industry was by no means certain at that point. Nevertheless, he says, “we decided it was an opportunity we couldn’t afford to miss.”

In 2010, the company opened a new plant in China to supply ultra-large bore bearings for a Chinese wind energy company. Das also oversaw the retooling and expansion of plants in the United States; Wuxi, China; Chennai, India; and Ploiesti, Romania.

Imagine Three Boeing 747s, Rotating Around a Hub

Timken develops solutions for the largest wind turbines in the world.

Growing the wind market by bringing down costs

Throughout its 120-year history, Timken leaders have taken pride in their ability to solve technically challenging problems that not just anyone is capable of tackling. Wind energy has been no exception.

“The weakest link in the chain was the bearings, in the beginning,” says Das. To address excessive downwind wear, Timken engineers developed a tapered bearing design that allowed both rows of rollers in the bearing to share radial and thrust loading equally. Timken wear-resistant coatings provided further insurance against micro-pitting and lubrication issues.

With Timken engineers on the case, the prospects for wind energy improved quickly. AWEA reported in 2017 that operational costs for wind farms fell by two-thirds over the past seven years. In areas where wind quality is very good, sub-megawatt turbines are now being replaced by larger three- to five-megawatt turbines. “Suddenly, the same wind in the same place is producing a lot more power,” says Das.

The combination of technical challenges and continued global focus on renewable energy fits right into the Timken business model. While the installed base of Timken wind energy products continues to grow, says Das, aftermarket opportunities are just starting to kick in. “By 2020, aftermarket demand is set to double, compared to 2017,” he says. “We do extremely well through our distribution partners, selling aftermarket parts for our initial installations, and also for upgrades to competitor installations.”

Timken continues to invest in wind, developing innovative turbine bearing designs proven to extend bearing life and significantly reduce wear. Today, the Timken Tapered Double Inner (TDI) mainshaft roller bearing confronts the challenge of wind in a way no other bearing ever has. The result of a decade of engineering and customer partnership, the TDI was designed to be the optimal bearing for three-point mount wind turbines, extending the lifecycle and improving performance for the largest turbines in the world.

Timken also brings inorganic investments to bear, with Groeneveld lubrication systems designed for turbines, as well as Lovejoy couplings and AeroTorque torque limiters. All of these products work to efficiently transfer the raw power harnessed by wind turbine blades to the generator behind the main shaft—and to do it reliably, under some of the most challenging conditions on the planet.

A model for entering new markets—proven over a century

As wind turbines become bigger and as they go offshore, the technical challenges multiply and that works in Timken’s favor, explains Das. “Timken typically gets in on applications where the probability and the cost of failure is very high. Customers come to us in those high-stakes situations because they know they can achieve a reliable solution.”

With that playbook in hand, Das continues to lead Timken into new and emerging markets that provide the kinds of challenges that Timken engineers like to sink their teeth into. Robotics is one example. “There are so many companies today trying to develop cobots,” he says (robots that work alongside humans). “But the power train has to be extremely precise, extremely lightweight, and extremely power efficient. Timken is looking at working on those applications.”

Timken is also seeing tremendous growth in solar energy applications, as well as in the food and beverage industry, where powertrains must stay ultra-sanitized. “We continue to look for challenges in those emerging and high-growth industries,” says Das, “and we continue to build organically and inorganically in those segments.”

As with wind, the playbook starts with that high-stakes technical challenge. As those challenges are overcome, it continues with growth in the resulting product’s installed base. Then, Timken sells replacement parts through its aftermarket distributors, providing sustained revenue and profitability.

“That is our typical model,” says Das. “We’ve been reinventing it for 120 years. It serves to perpetually diversify and rejuvenate our company. Wherever technical innovations happen around the world, you always see a need for the right powertrain and friction management technology. Timken is uniquely able to solve for the most challenging applications.”