On 1 December 2016, a 75m turbine blade emerged from a factory in Hull. Bound for DONG Energy’s Race Bank wind farm in the North Sea, it marked the start of production at Green Port Hull, the £310-million development between Siemens Wind Power and Associated British Ports (ABP).

Renewables may be the port’s future, but they certainly weren’t its past. Alexandra Dock – the site on which Siemens’ newly constructed 39,600m2 factory sits – originally opened in 1885 to support the export of South Yorkshire coal and the import of the Scandinavian timber used as pit props. By the 1970s, many of Hull’s docks lay disused and Alexandra Dock was itself closed for several years from 1982, with parts of the site reopened and redeveloped through the 1990s and 2000s.

Siemens’ investment into the port, announced in early 2014, marks a welcome injection of belief, funds and recruitment into a city with one of the lowest employment rates in England.

With more than 700 of an intended 1,000 new staff now enrolled with Siemens, and further opportunities in the supply chain, local talent is already playing a leading role, according to Michael Hannibal, CEO of offshore wind, Siemens Wind Power.

“Of those that have begun [work] or will begin soon, in excess of 95% live within a 30-mile radius of the factory,” he says. “These are local jobs for local people.”

Valuable as these new opportunities may be for the residents in the area, it’s not philanthropy but opportunity that tends to entice business. For Hull and Siemens, it is the site’s proximity to the new and existing offshore wind developments in the North Sea, and its accessibility (within 12 hours’ sailing) to the UK’s Round 3 development zones for offshore. It’s also a chance to build on Siemens’ already strong presence in the UK, which comprised 14,000 employees in 2015.

LEAN principles were applied to allow the plant to have a 20% higher output, despite being 15% smaller than planned.

With Siemens commissioned to supply the Race Bank site and neighbouring Dudgeon East (both Round 2 developments, with a planned 91 and 67 turbines respectively), Hull’s location on the so-called ‘energy estuary’ is advantageous. Quayside access to a deepwater port operated by ABP will make shipments quicker and simpler. What’s more, Hull belongs to the Humber CORE – one of six centres for offshore renewable engineering in England identified by the government for support to achieve rapid growth in offshore wind.

Wind megaproject

Siemens is investing a total of £160 million into Green Port Hull. Once complete, the complex will house facilities not only for the manufacture of blades and turbine components to supply new sites, but also to support the ongoing maintenance of existing turbines.

These parallel areas of work are essentially divided between two different parts of the site. On the western side of Alexandra Dock sits the factory where more 75m blades like that unveiled in December will be manufactured. Turbine components will also be assembled, stored and maintained here as well as within the additional open and covered areas situated nearby, where turbine parts can also be tested. A roll-on-roll-off (ro-ro) dock has been built to allow easier loading and unloading, improving turnaround times. Finally, office accommodation and welfare facilities on this part of the site will support staff.

Under construction over on the south-east corner, meanwhile, is Siemens’ service and maintenance facility, centred around a 12,300m2 building. This will accommodate the storage of parts and equipment required in pre-assembly phases, and also feature service areas and support infrastructure such as parking.

Spread over a 540,000m2 site, this is construction on a huge scale – so expansive, in fact, that growth extends to the municipal level.

“It’s an interesting fact that we have actually made Yorkshire a bigger county,” Hannibal reveals. “In the construction, some wet docks were in-filled to give more space for the service and storage facilities.”

At the same time, measures to minimise the required footprint of the blade factory allowed it to be placed right next to the assembly and servicing facilities at Alexandra Dock rather than at Paull – a site on the other side of the estuary in East Riding – as originally planned. LEAN principles were applied last year to allow the plant to have a 20% higher output, despite being 15% smaller than planned.

Hull and Cuxhaven represent the importance of British and German offshore markets, and also our future expectations for these markets

Hannibal explains that central to achieving this was improving the flow of materials and components through the manufacturing process, and digitalising elements of production to support efficiency wherever possible.

“This includes an integrated supply chain through software solutions, which reduces paperwork and allows quality critical components to be traced from the supplier through the manufacturing process until being placed at the wind park,” he says. “Also, in production itself, digitalisation helps us to save time, for example, [in the case of] a laser system that assists lay-up of glass fibre. A laser light is projected into the moulds for highly precise positioning of glass fibre layers replacing manual markings.”

Further improvements have included the final assembly of nacelles. Because Siemens’ large direct-drive offshore wind turbines now include the entire electrical system in the nacelle, testing can be carried out on site, saving the time and cost of conducting these offshore.

“Another important element in higher efficiency is our logistics concept,” he adds. “Hull, Cuxhaven [in Germany] and other offshore sites allow ro-ro handling of heavy components. So we avoid crane operation, accelerate loading and improve safety.”

Great expectations

With construction nearing completion and blade production under way, the German engineering giant’s commitment to the area – and the work of local and national government to land it – has already encouraged additional business to move into the area.

“We are seeing other companies setting up operations within a small radius of Green Port Hull, having been influenced by the confidence Siemens has in the area, the infrastructure and the people that form the workforce,” Hannibal says. “The British Government’s welcome support for industry in the North of England with their ‘Northern Powerhouse’ vindicates our decision and, we believe, will further concentrate expertise in offshore wind around the ‘energy estuary’.”

Complemented by a new wind-turbine factory currently under construction in Cuxhaven, Germany, Green Port Hull will play a central role in supporting Siemens output internationally as it delivers the latest generation of 7 and 8MW direct-drive turbines.

“We have always underlined that decisions to expand our manufacturing footprint are strongly related to the development of our markets, Hannibal says. “Hull and Cuxhaven represent the importance of British and German offshore markets, and also our future expectations for these markets.”

It remains to be seen how the balance between the two ports may shift as the impact of the UK’s anticipated departure from the EU becomes clearer, and whether another century of activity can be secured for Alexandra Dock. Hannibal certainly isn’t giving anything away. For now at least, Siemens is in deep.