When Brian Lapcewich enrolled at Iowa State in 2005 as an undeclared engineering major, he didn’t know his passion for engineering would lead him to a career where an ordinary day at the office would mean standing atop an 80-meter high wind turbine.
As a junior in high school, Lapcewich toured the campus and fell in love with the classes and the program. “I ended the day feeling like I wasn’t going to be just a number, that I could thrive and succeed,” he says. From the beginning, he leaned toward mechanical engineering, and it only took one semester to declare. He says he never looked back.
While at Iowa State, he participated in two internships, first with BNSF Railway in 2008, and then with Caterpillar in 2009. At Caterpillar, he worked with technicians to tear apart faulty drive train units to locate and replace problem components and conduct failure analyses, gaining insight that would eventually help him settle on a direction for his career.
In his fifth and final year, he added a nondestructive evaluation minor and began to focus on wind energy aspects that correlated with his studies in mechanical engineering.
“When I came back to ISU [from Caterpillar], the job market was starting to shift and shrink up,” he says. That was when a fortuitous letter from his mother arrived, with an article about the skyrocketing market for renewable energy professionals. He immediately saw a connection between what he was studying and his future plans.
“A wind turbine is just a large drive train,” he explains. “It has a gearbox, bearings, and a generator, just on a larger scale.”
With this new goal in mind, Lapcewich researched wind energy and signed up for an introduction to wind class that had just been introduced at Iowa State. His enthusiasm grew until he was fully engulfed in wind.
Under the supervision of Lisa Brasche, associate director of the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, Lapcewich participated in a semester-long independent study focused on failure modes for wind turbines, drive trains, and fiberglass blades. With the Clipper Windpower turbine factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lapcewich used nondestructive methods and equipment such as borescopes and infrared cameras to inspect wind components and observe turbine elements.
“Brian was very committed to understanding wind,” Brasche says, adding that during his time with Clipper, Lapcewich “gained a deeper understanding of the complexity of turbine construction, from transportation of components to building them up.”
Armed with hands-on experience with machinery and nondestructive evaluation techniques, Lapcewich focused his career search on the wind energy market. He says the wind industry has enormous potential for engineers in almost any program.
Besides the mechanical and electrical aspects of turbines, computer and software engineers design the control systems which turn the turbines into the wind, shut them down, and collect data and send it back to remote-operations centers. Aerospace engineers are working on blade design, trying to balance lift versus resistance, as in any propeller or wing of a plane. Civil and construction engineers develop foundations, construct wind farm layouts, and consider the needs of people who live and work around the farms who are concerned with noise, or the impact of water runoff in local areas. Industrial and manufacturing systems engineers work on projects like improving the efficiency of producing turbine blades.
Among the companies Lapcewich applied to during his job search was Availon Inc., previously SSB Service, a company founded in Germany that has expanded to the United States and established its headquarters in Grimes, Iowa.
“It was the best interview of my life. Everything seemed to click,” Lapcewich says. He loved the attitude in the office and was impressed with the employee selection process, saying Availon had the right people from the right variety of backgrounds working together to form a cohesive team. Lapcewich was excited by the prospect of staying in Iowa, near his alma mater, and the opportunity to travel abroad for training at the company’s parent firm in Germany. He had an offer from Availon before he graduated, and stared work with the company soon after commencement.
Lapcewich refers to Availon as a “dark horse;” he knew little about them before beginning his job search, but the company’s involvement in the wind industry began over 20 years ago, with the design of electrical motors and control systems for some of the first modern wind turbines in Germany.
Modern turbine technology is still relatively young, spurred by the 70’s oil crisis and NASA wind turbines, which pioneered today’s turbine designs. However, many of the first modern turbines were cobbled together from components that weren’t designed for the high strain of wind, such as cooling systems taken from the automotive industry or large bearings found in construction cranes. Over time, these components fail, but unlike a car, a wind turbine can’t simply be towed to a repair shop. This is where Availon steps in.
“We focus on providing service on normal operations and maintenance, troubleshooting, designing and installing upgrades, and performing end-of-warranty inspections,” Lapcewich says.
By studying the life cycles of 20-year-old turbines in Germany, Availon can predict when malfunctions will most likely occur in newer, stateside turbines as they age.
In his role as a mechanical product support engineer, Lapcewich has aided teams in the field by conducting troubleshooting and diagnostic testing to find solutions for recurring problems. He has also designed upgrades for the wind industry to maintain the life and output of the older, more slap-dash turbines.
Though his official title at Availon hasn’t changed, Lapcewich’s responsibilities have grown to encompass safety, technical training, and project management.
When employees spend time 60 to 90 meters above the ground, safety is the highest priority. Lapcewich sets up training seminars for workers, who are required to participate in 40 hours of training and be recertified every two years. Technicians must also train with electrical systems and medium-range voltages. “Repair work might require us to switch off power to the whole tower, or just at lock-off points. Communication with teammates is paramount,” Lapcewich says.
Communication isn’t only important for the technicians, though. Lapcewich also works with office and sales personnel, helping them build connections with clients and explain methods and repair work from a mechanical standpoint for someone who doesn’t know the technical jargon.
But whether his day includes scaling a turbine or staying in the office, Lapcewich greets the winds of challenge head-on.
“I absolutely love my job,” Lapcewich says. “I wake up in the morning excited to go to work. There’s something about the view from the top of a turbine that just can’t be replicated.”