Wind farm: GBX brings new business model to improve O&M efficiencies

Marking the day with a celebration attended by over 150 people including state and local officials as well as representatives from some of the nation’s top wind industry companies, Gearbox Express (GBX)—a new company with a first-of-its-kind business model—opened the doors of its gearbox refurbishing facility in Mukwonago, Wis.

Here’s how the unique business model works: a wind turbine gearbox, located at a project anywhere in the country, is disabled. Seeking to get the wind turbine back online as soon as possible so that it can contribute to its revenue stream, the project owner-operator contacts GBX, which has another refurbished gearbox for the same model turbine sitting right on its shelf and ready to go. GBX ships the refurbished gearbox, which has been tested and comes with a warranty, straight to the project site.

The owner-operator takes care of the installation and as part of the deal, ships its old gearbox to Mukwonago so GBX can start the process over: refurbish the component, test it, and place it in inventory, ready for shipment to the next customer in need. The process is intended to exploit the company’s expertise—down-tower gearbox work—while shrinking turbine offline time so that the machine can start generating electrons and revenue again. Thus, with no presence on project sites and with a focus on but one component, GBX keeps to its four areas of expertise: disassembly, root-cause analysis, reassembly, and load testing. With major investments in gearboxes to get its inventory started as well as a state-of-the-art 3.1-MW test stand for full load testing, it took about two years and $9 million to get the company to where it is today.

“We’re gearbox guys,” said CEO Bruce Neumiller explained to Wind Energy Weekly, referring to the gearbox-heavy backgrounds of himself and the team the company assembled. “It’s what we’ve always done, and that’s how we [designed the business model]. All we do is gearboxes.”

In addition to the gearbox-swap model, the gearbox-only approach is what makes GBX a first-of-its kind company, said Neumiller. While many other companies obviously work on gearboxes, they don’t typically specialize exclusively in that component.

American Wind Energy Association Director of Business Director Jeff Anthony, who attended the grand-opening event, noted the significance of the GBX facility opening on another level. Only recently did Wisconsin’s wind farm siting rules take effect after a drawn-out saga that saw their implementation delayed, putting the industry on hold in the state because of the uncertainty and discouraging industry supply-chain companies from setting up shop there.

"This is an important step forward for the wind energy industry, from an O&M and wind turbine reliabity & performance standpoint,” said Anthony, who is based in Wisconsin. “But it is also important for Wisconsin, as it signals another grand opening, if you will: the state is back open for business to the wind turbines industry energy, after the year-long wind rules suspension, which paralyzed investment and activity in the state.”

The 43,000 square-foot facility could eventually employ up to 100 people. “There are more than 26,000 active wind turbines in the United States and it’s a fact that the gearboxes will need replacing during their lifetime,” Neumiller said in news release. “The wind farm owners want their investments to keep running, so there’s a tremendous opportunity for us to help protect and manage their assets.”

Carl Levesque, American Wind Energy Association Editor & Publications Manager,