Solving Complex Engineering Challenges in a Rapidly Growing Industry
China more than doubled its previous annual growth record in wind energy when it installed a new 71.7GW-capacity wind farm in 2020. Andy Zhou and his service engineering team contributed to that rapid growth by collaborating with wind turbine manufacturers on new designs and solving complex application challenges in the field.
Over his 17 years with Timken, Zhou advanced to management because of his knack for taking initiative and developing solid technical solutions. “I’m one to share my thought processes and opinions before I’m asked,” he says. “It’s an attribute that always stood out to customers and managers.”
Zhou heads a team of 12 engineers, many of whom have also been with the company for more than 10 years. He attributes Timken associates’ service longevity to the wealth of opportunity the company offers.
“Service engineers cover many different applications, and we have the opportunity to focus on those we enjoy the most. Whether it be industrial manufacturing, renewable energy or robotics, Timken offers a variety of training and mentorship programs.”
Manager, Service Engineering
“Service engineers cover many different applications, and we have the opportunity to focus on those we enjoy the most,” he says. “Whether it be industrial manufacturing, renewable energy or robotics, Timken offers a variety of training and mentorship programs.”
In Zhou’s case, the complex issues of wind turbines piqued his interest, along with machine tool technologies. He trained overseas in France and the United States, which is common for Timken employees around the world. Experts from those countries spent time in Shanghai as well, to help train and build the Timken China team.
“Our team is completely local,” he says. “We’re all from China, and we’re proud to advance wind energy capacity in our own country.”
Up-close knowledge of wind turbine issues and performance
Any typical day, a service engineer might be found climbing up the inside of an 80-meter-tall wind turbine, equipped with a safety belt. “Some of my colleagues can climb a turbine in less than five minutes, but I’m not that fast,” Zhou says. “It takes me about 20 minutes.”
Once there, they listen closely to diagnose potential issues. “If the turbine is too noisy, we’ll check the bearing vibration. We collect frequency of the vibration data for our experts to analyze, since you can’t see the bearing very well from the inside,” he says. “From there, we may take grease samples to check the lubricant condition, or we may decide to replace a bearing that’s reached the end of its life cycle.”
Early model wind turbines, built before Timken entered the market, used spherical roller bearings (SRBs) for the main shaft. Often, those bearings show wear and low performance before the end of their intended lifespan, so when wind farm operators call Timken engineers for diagnosis and replacement, Timken tapered roller bearings are often recommended as a solution — because they’re designed to extend bearing main shaft bearing life and improve turbine performance.
As turbines grow in size, many manufacturers are switching to tapered bearings to increase bearing life and better handle main shaft loads.
Collaborating with OEMs to build high-performing turbines
Climbing turbines is just one way Zhou can spend a day. Often, he’s working with OEM designers to design, test, and install bearings for new model development. While that work is underway, his team also creates manuals detailing proper mounting, setting, and maintenance procedures for the new bearing.
Recently, Zhejiang Windey, one of the first wind turbine manufacturers in China, sought out Timken expertise to help design a new model, using a tapered bearing in the main shaft bearing position for the first time. Main shaft bearings experience heavy and diverse loads as the blades they hold are buffeted by the wind. As turbines grow in size, many manufacturers are switching to tapered bearings to increase bearing life and better handle main shaft loads.
When Zhou arrived at the Zhejiang Windey facility to install the bearing prototype, he was able to use the manual to correct the tolerance measurements and help the customer save money and time during future maintenance events.
Whatever it takes to solve complex engineering problems
Every day is different, says Zhou, and the job is hardly ever straightforward and simple. “Every day we face a different problem,” he says. “It might be something we never expected. It might be urgent or very complex. Every day, we drive ourselves to dig in and identify the root cause of the issue a customer might be facing.”
Zhou feels a lot of pride in serving as the face of the Timken brand and building trust with customers all over China — and solving those complex problems is always satisfying. “There is no better feeling,” he says.
When he talks to young engineers, his message is simple: “I always say, if you have a problem, just face it down. If you need help, ask for it, but do your best for the customer. That’s how you learn and develop your skills.”
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