Iowa City Press-Citizen: Company Works with UI to Move Wind Industry Forward

Saturday, December 31, 2011

By Tara Bannow
Iiowa City Press-Citizen

Eight months after announcing plans to locate a plant that will build wind turbine components in Iowa City, the North American Ductile Iron Co., or Nadicom, has pledged to contribute $300,000 and a wealth of its own data to University of Iowa research it thinks will benefit the wind energy field.

Fulton, Md.-based Nadicom still is working out some of the financing and logistics before breaking ground on the $85 million foundry — the company’s first in North America — slated to go in the Wind Energy Supply Chain Campus near the Scott Six Industrial park on Iowa City’s southeast side. The company’s CEO said partnering with UI’s research will give it a competitive edge, as well as a head start when its foundry opens.

UI mechanical and industrial engineering professor Christoph Beckermann’s research will attempt to identify methods of developing lighter, higher-quality ductile iron castings, components of a piece of equipment — wind turbines in this case — made from pouring molten metal into a mold. As its name suggests, Nadicom’s facility will focus specifically on ductile iron castings, which makes for a mutual benefit.

Prasad Karunakaran, Nadicom’s CEO, said the downfall of most wind turbine manufacturers in the U.S. is that they don’t have a research and development arm at their casting site. By collaborating with Beckerman’s research, Nadicom has the benefit of being able to work directly with the researchers to see how things should be done at the foundry.

In short, it will provide a competitive edge that U.S. manufacturers only find through innovative research, Karunakaran said. Countries such as China and India have the advantage of cheap labor, so to attract customers, U.S. companies need to be unique, he said.

“You don’t just put in $85 million for the foundry and think someone’s just going to come to you,” he said.

The Iowa Alliance for Wind Innovation and Novel Development initially awarded its own $300,000 grant, which Nadicom and Clipper Windpower, a Cedar Rapids-based turbine manufacturer, agreed to match.

One of the biggest issues wind turbine manufacturers face is the need to make the turbines able to produce more power, more efficiently. Usually, that has to mean making them larger, Karunakaran said.

“You can only make it bigger so much,” he said. “You have to find unique ways of building these things.”

The goal, generally, is to make the castings lighter, thereby making them cheaper to operate, yet increasing their production capacity, he said.

Nadicom’s Iowa City foundry, which has won the public praise of Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa City Manager Tom Markus, is planned to open by 2013 expects to employ 175 people. Depending on where demand goes, the plant also could make automobile parts or parts for other industries in which castings are used.

Wind turbines in the U.S. have spurred an annual $3 billion industry for steel or cast iron components, according to the Iowa City Area Development Group, or ICAD.

Mark Nolte, ICAD’s business development director, said the public/private collaboration between the UI and Nadicom is becoming increasingly important to companies. For example, it’s one of the reasons Acciona Windpower decided to locate in West Branch, he said.

It’s all about getting the most knowledge in a single area, Nolte said.

“It’s the concept of clustering: You want to get more of those companies together in one place,” he said. “This is just another way to make this area more attractive for the manufacturing.”