HUNTERSVILLE – Using a centuries-old manufacturing technique to blend modern materials, a local firm has become a global pacesetter in a high-tech field. And in a constantly-evolving industry with an emphasis on lighter and stronger products, winds of change may present even more opportunity.
Saertex USA has office and manufacturing headquarters on Mount Holly-Huntersville Road and a sister facility in The Park office complex. It is the U.S. component of a 32-year-old Germany-based company with production operations on five continents and has status as a leader in the production of “non-crimp” fabrics.
The non-crimp, or “multiaxial,” description used for the materials refers to the process unifying multiple layers of fibers into a single, finished fabric. An appropriate historic comparison, according to Saertex Technical Support Manager Jim Kaufmann, would be textile operations that weaved threads of cotton into fabric for clothing.
“We are applying an ancient manufacturing technique with modern materials,” Kaufmann explained.
But in Saertex operations, materials fed into the process are glass, carbon and aramid fibers. Strands are fed into modern “weaving” machines and mechanically positioned at precisely engineered angles to create a reinforced single-sheet web to meet customer specifications.
The finished, composite products – light-weight, strong and corrosive resistant – are in high demand in a multitude of traditional established fields, like the aerospace, automotive and boating industries. And Saertex products are also involved in some oil and gas extraction and railroad uses.
But it's the role Saertex products play in the modern, growing version of one of the oldest forms of energy production that has emerged as a company point of emphasis.
Earth, wind and fabric
In marketing promotions, Saertex describes the composite material it makes as “stronger than steel, lighter than aluminum,” a combination ideal for any movement-related application. And almost from the company's beginnings, the wind energy industry – dependent on efficient rotations of large blades – has been a prominent final destination for Saertex products.
And at a small group gathering held at Saertex's production facility on Oct. 5 – National Manufacturing Day – Saertex USA Chief Operating Officer Ulrich Tombuelt said that trend is continuing. Tombuelt said he expects about 80 percent of Saertex USA products made this year to be used in the wind energy field. And that point illustrated why Jennifer Behr, North Carolina senior organizer for the Chambers of Innovation and Clean Energy, and Adam Forrer, Atlantic Region manager of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, selected the Huntersville facility as the host site for a discussion about wind energy's present and future.
The presentation at Saertex, with N.C. Rep. John Bradford and Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Russell also in attendance, was designed to highlight Saertex's leading role in an expanding alternative energy field. In his introductory comments, Tombuelt said the local facility's 240 employees are working almost around-the-clock to meet customer demands.
“And we cut back on some of the production schedule because we can't find enough workers,” he said, adding the company is looking to add up to 40 positions. “We had to turn down some orders to keep up with the demand we have.”
The primary destinations for Saertex wind energy products are production facilities in the middle part of the country, an area from Ohio to the Dakotas and through the Midwest to Texas that Kaufmann described as “the wind band east of the Rockies.”
The materials are used to form blades more than 100 feet long for large land-based wind turbine structures at commercial wind farms. In providing insight into the level of demand for the composite product, Kaufmann said it can require six tons or more of material to shape a single blade. Standard onshore wind farm turbines have three blades.
Texas, with more than 10,000 turbines in operation, is the nation's leader in wind energy production, but North Carolina has entered the commercial wind energy arena. The Amazon Wind Farm in rural northeastern North Carolina (Perquimans and Pasquotank counties) is the state's first wind farm. The 104-turbine facility went into service last year and is designed to meet current and future energy needs for Amazon Corporation facilities in Virginia.
In his comments, Forrer said more facilities like the Amazon project could be in the state's future, generating more demand for products Saertex makes. And in highlighting the potential future jobs and revenue related to the wind energy field, he also referenced a new wave in the industry that could have an even greater impact.
In his presentation, Forror said prospects for offshore wind farms – with taller towers and much longer blades – are promising off North Carolina and the entire East Coast.
“The East Coast is a good wind source,” Forrer said, “and North Carolina is considered one of the prime locations.”
Currently, there is only one offshore wind farm operating in the United States – a five-turbine facility off Rhode Island. But there are plans for more. Last year, a Spanish firm paid more than $9 million for the rights to build a wind farm in the Kitty Hawk Wind Energy Area (WEA) 24 miles offshore from North Carolina's northern Outer Banks (the year before, wind farm rights off New York’s coast attracted a $42 million bid).
And the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a federal agency formed in 2010 to oversee development of offshore energy and mineral resources, has designated two additional areas off the North Carolina coast – called the Wilmington East and Wilmington West WEAs – as potential wind farm sites.
“There are a lot of wind facilities coming to the United States,” Forrer said, “and offshore wind will be part of that.”
Spreading the news about the potential for wind energy growth, in North Carolina and beyond, was the primary purpose of the event at Saertex. But it was also designed to raise awareness of how the local company is already connected to the growing industry.
And in his remarks, Tombuelt said the company, which added 13,000 feet of office and production space to its 120,000-square-foot facility two years ago, is positioned to grow to meet demand. When the addition was built, the company also acquired additional property, and Tombuelt said the 38-acre site has room for expansion.