Getting to grips with research: The time my research project involved a hammer and screwdriver – a somewhat different kind of experience report.
As a research associate at the Fraunhofer IWES, my day-to-day work involves the simulation of large rolling bearings and entire test benches. Normally, the massive dimensions which are commonplace in the wind energy industry are quickly shrunk to fit my 24” computer screen.
Last year, however, I had the chance to experience for myself what it means to unload a bearing measuring 6 meters in diameter from a truck and maneuver it to the desired location with pinpoint accuracy. In November and December 2019, our new customer had to carry out an extensive exchange of bearings with the corresponding connecting components in our hall at the Large Bearing Laboratory in Hamburg. And because this was the first major conversion and the effort involved was difficult to estimate in advance, my colleagues and I decided to perform the work ourselves. Ready for action, we swapped simulation and programming for safety shoes and hard hats for eight weeks. Our task was to align the bearings and connecting components weighing several tons and then connect them together securely with plenty of screws. The components were positioned and fixed in place one after the other, so the test bench was assembled sort of like an oversized, extremely complicated construction set. A colleague of ours from Bremerhaven also joined us because he “really felt like screwing things together”.
From my models on the computer, I had calculated that we needed to use 1,780 screws each weighing between 3 and 6 kg. I knew on day one that my muscles were going to ache the next morning, but I certainly hadn’t expected my bike ride to work to take twice as long as usual! The dimensions of the individual components also became clear when we maneuvered the old components to the land next to the building in order to make room for the new ones. We had to rent a 300-ton crane and close the road for the whole day. At this point, I would like to thank our neighbors GALAB and HAW again for willingly agreeing to park on the grass.
Every morning we started screwing the steel parts together in a good mood. And since the parts were delivered almost all at the same time, we even had to work the odd weekend or two. Of course, we didn’t forget about our other obligations, and a steel cylinder was swiftly converted into an office so that we had a quiet corner for telephone conferences with the customer.
The customer was also not afraid to get his hands dirty, and that gave us extra motivation, especially when working late into the evening. It wasn’t just a case of tightening screws either – we also discussed FE results and played possible test scenarios through in our heads. All in all, our tremendous team spirit ensured that the last screw in particular was tightened with a smile on everybody’s faces. We actually finished 3 weeks earlier than originally planned, just in time for Christmas. The photo with the caption “Test bench finished” was taken with great joy on the last day. I think I also speak for all of us when I say: “I was thankful not to find any screws under the Christmas tree.” The test got under way after Christmas and will run without interruptions for the next few months. As for me, it’s back to FEM in order to compare the simulation results with the real-life ones.
I really enjoyed the practical experience and it was a great opportunity to broaden my knowledge. Back at my desk, I can give my muscles a chance to recover as I “tighten” screws in the reduced dimensions on my screen with just a few clicks of the mouse. All told, we got through around 500 cups of coffee, 200 sodas, and countless liters of water while working in the test hall. We left with only a few minor injuries – I stopped counting the blisters on my hands after the seventh one!