Father-son Team Repair Wind Turbines

The father-son owners of Orbital Machine Works LLC in Lewisville, Texas have figured out how to fix a critical component used in wind turbines. In the process, they’ve carved out a specialty that’s likely to grow exponentially as wind power takes hold.

“The wind energy business is like the early days of the oil business,” says Dan, the elder Stroud.

But it’s not as young as it once was. Some older turbines have been in service for more than two decades. And parts wear out.

“Everyone is looking for much faster service than sending parts to be repaired overseas,” Dan says.

One of those parts is an 18-inch-diameter device called a variable speed controller. A busted one can stop a 300-foot giant dead in its tracks.

And the Strouds may well be the only men in America who can put one back into commission.

“Those are the only guys in the United States right there,” says Junior Yanez, vice president of Global Wind Power Services LLC in Midland, which services wind farms in Texas and Tennessee.

It usually takes 16 weeks for the controllers to be shipped to the maker in Denmark and then returned to duty, Mr. Yanez says. The Strouds get units in and out of their small machine shop off Interstate 35E in about 10 days.

Other customers include Florida Power and Light and about a dozen other wind producers around the country and as far away as Ireland.

“It sounds funny,” Dan says, “but we can get them fixed faster for the wind farm in Ireland than if they were to send it to the manufacturer in Europe.”

Turbine downtime is expensive – about $1,000 a day, Mr. Yanez says. Do the math, and a giant standing idle for 16 weeks costs around $112,000. Cut that time by 102 days, and it makes the $3,000 to $5,000 that the Strouds get per repair job a real bargain, says Mr. Yanez, who came to the Strouds for help nearly four years ago.

“The Strouds are excellent engineers, so I called Dan and Terry to see if they could reverse-engineer this,” Mr. Yanez says. “They’ve been real successful with the variable speed units, but there are different things for wind turbines that they’re also working on.

“We keep Dan and Terry plenty busy.”

Striking Similarities

The son is 39, and the father is 63 — a fact Dan reveals reluctantly. But, he adds defensively, “I can ride a bike farther and faster than most people.”

Terry looks just like his father with darker hair. (See photo, left.)

“We hear that all the time,” Dan says.

Dan spent 35 years as a commercial photographer, including taking test shots for Playboy applicants, and is a mechanical whiz and inventor. His assignments took him to the North Pole and South American jungles; his creations include a handheld aerial camera.

Terry is a top-notch techie, creating software, hardware and sophisticated research equipment for the Dallas Mavericks and Alcon Laboratories Inc. He invented an on-screen scorekeeper system that’s used in TV broadcasts.

Both are rocket scientists — literally — and considered experts in high-powered amateur rockets. They (and their 20-foot-tall creation, Aurora, Supreme Goddess of the Sky) appeared in a 2003 documentary still seen on the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel.

They also starred in a 10-episode series, Master Blasters, filmed for the SciFi network, in which they launched a MiniCooper, a full-size playhouse and dune buggies.

SciFi ran four episodes of Master Blasters in 2005, then dropped the series. The Discovery Channel has since picked it up and airs it on the Science Channel.

Divided Duties

Father and son have worked together a long time but have been business partners only the past four years.

“I do the electronic designs and computer programs,” says Terry, “and he’s out there managing the shop, whipping people around and building the physical devices most of the time. It works out great – always has.”

When it came to the speed control units, the Danish manufacturer, Vestas Wind Systems A/S, wasn’t about to hand out proprietary information. Others who tried to come up with repair parts had been stumped by their complexity.

“It has microelectronics and power electronics along with a slew of other things. When the wind farms asked us if we could fix one, we said, ‘Oh yeah,’ says Terry.

He cracked the basic design code in about two months but then went through several weeks of “pain and suffering” lessons such as, “Oh gee, these things are really easy to short out if you tighten a bolt too much,” Terry says.

Since the Strouds don’t use the information to compete with the manufacturer, there haven’t been legal issues, Dan says. “Repair work is a pittance for them. They’re far more interested in what their newest latest and greatest turbines are going to be. They’ve actually been to our shop a couple of times to see what we’re doing.”

The number of speed control systems that Orbital gets in each month varies from four to 20. Last year, they repaired more than 100, bringing in about a half-million dollars in revenue.

Dan expects this business to increase 20 percent this year because more turbines are getting older and the parts are going out of warranty.

“But we’re tickling the giant’s navel here,” he says. “This is just one of the things we do. We’ve become a one-stop solutions shop. We take our knowledge of physics, electronics, technical and mechanical fields to solve your problem.”

For example, Orbital is helping Tower Logistics LLC of West Virginia develop what, in essence, will be a mini-elevator inside huge windmills.

“Right now, it’s like climbing a 30-story building on a straight-up ladder to get to the 20-by-10-foot room at the top of a tower,” Dan says. “They’ve designed the climb-assist system, and they want us to design the automated weight-selection device and the electronics to operate it.”

Robert Angelopoulos, a senior engineer at Alcon Labs, asked the Strouds to develop an ophthalmic testing device.

“We built one, and it works,” Mr. Angelopoulos says. “These guys are phenomenal.”

He’s known Terry since 1997. That’s when Terry came into Mr. Angelopoulos’ physics lab at the University of Texas at Arlington and announced he wouldn’t be able to attend any classes or labs.

“I told him, ‘That’ll make it real difficult for you to pass,’ ” Mr. Angelopoulos recalls. “Then I found out Terry was a super-duper programmer. So I put him on this code project that was part of my thesis.”

Terry more than passed. He got an A.

“He’s just ridiculous, that guy. You can talk to Terry about anything, and he’s either read a book about it or done it.”

But the Alcon engineer’s favorite assignment with the Strouds was appearing in a Master Blasters episode called “Fans of Fury.”

It’s the one where fans from industrial water cooling towers were launched and came back to Earth like helicopters. Or at least, they were supposed to.

“They were like 800 pounds each when we started,” Dan says. “They weren’t when we finished.”

Today and Beyond

Since the beginning of 2008, business for Orbital Machine Works has skyrocketed. With the aid of National Switchgear Systems of Lewisville, Texas Orbital’s business has quadrupled. As a long-time strategic partner of the company, National Switchgear has been closely involved with marketing the repair service of the variable speed controller to the wind energy business market.

“Repair of the variable speed controller was an R&D project we first brought to Terry and Dan several years ago,” says National Switchgear President Doug Powell. “At first I didn’t have much confidence that a repair solution could be developed, because there was just too much proprietary information that we couldn’t access. But Terry saw this as a challenge and set about reverse engineering the product, as well as designing a repair solution that we could promote to the wind energy market.”

In addition to his Orbital commitments, Terry can be seen on The Discovery Channel’s One Way Out, where he serves as the intellectual force behind wild concepts of the new show. From his Dallas office, Terry computes the necessary physics required to attempt the various stunts and also periodically flies to LA to film episodes.

Each day, operators of giant wind farms and other companies in the wind energy business are turning to the Stroud duo for additional solutions to bothersome production problems. With the wind energy business on the rise and Orbital Machine Works the sole solution for many turbine problems, the opportunities are endless for this father-son partnership.

Cheryl Hall writes about business for the Dallas Morning News.

Original article ran in the February 10, 2008 edition of the Dallas Morning News. Republished with permission of Dallas Morning News, Dallas, Texas. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the consent of Dallas Morning News. Today and beyond update provided by National Switchgear Systems.

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