Matt Youson reports that while testing equipment is sometimes omitted from an integrator’s plan of action, the installations are a ‘must have’ in terms of automotive production

Integrating test and inspection technology into a production line, instead of relying on a third-party lab, has long been an automotive staple, though according to one longstanding supplier of inspection equipment to automotive production lines, it’s frequently an afterthought added to the line integration process.

Innomech - identifying problems

“Lind builders generally think about inspection equipment at the end of the planning process, usually after they’ve forgotten about it,” says David Beale, Managing Director of test and inspection equipment supplier Innomech.

As Beale says, Innomech “solves difficult manufacturing problems”. While the company will work with conveyors and handling equipment if required, their main business is the design and integration of inspection or assembly equipment for applications where standard solutions do not exist. They have a large presence in the automotive industry, but are also active in aerospace and pharmaceutical manufacturing. “We often work where customers really want to push the technology,” says Beale.

While Innomech has a new integrator tie-up with ABB, Beale says that their automotive work predominantly comes directly from the end user. “It does tend to be that the manufacturer will come to us directly. We have partnered with some of the big integrators in the past, though being relatively small we are carefully protective of our IP. It’s quite different in other industries, for example pharmaceuticals, where the big equipment suppliers generally only want to make the large flow lines. They are capable of integrating the speciality equipment, but it’s outside of their core competence and not what they want to do. They tend to prefer leaving the design and integration of the special equipment that goes onto their flow lines to a specialist.”

Beale says that first contact with a prospective automotive client is generally related to a system shortfall. “Typically the customer says ‘I’ve got a problem’. They are having failures and they are not able to identify where the problem is in their line.

“It isn’t uncommon at that point for us to get involved in a feasibility study; an R&D project to identify where problems could be – effectively de-risking a product through design of a test and inspection regime. This might be early on, as the first phase of a project, or it might be a standalone piece of R&D which we are commissioned to carry out with the customer assuming ownership of the results; they are then free to tender bids for equipment construction with any number of other manufacturers. ”

He continues by saying that inspection issues often come about through a disconnect between product design and manufacturing. “It’s something we see frequently in the supply industry because a product has been designed by a car manufacturer with other requirements in mind. What we tend to do is spend as much time as needed with our customer to really understand their requirements. Changing the design might provide a simple and painless solution, but it is not an option: the manufacturer has to live with it and integrate innovative inspection solutions into the process to deliver the answer they want.”

Innomech’s standard operating procedure involves a comprehensive pre-installation testing regime off-site. “It’s something we insist upon,” says Beale. “First, we agree a clear user requirement specification, essentially stating what the equipment needs to do. From there we will develop a function specification, saying how it is going to work. When we have that we can complete the build, but as part of the quotation stage we will do a factory acceptance test which specifies what the customer wants and how we will test it to make sure it’s right. As part of that we will do an acceptance test at our facilities, involving a simulated production line – or as close as we can make it.”

Federal-Mogul - quality at speed

Federal-Mogul plant in Coventry, UK, manufactures valve seats and guides, shock absorber rings and turbocharger bushes for distribution to a large number of global vehicle manufacturers and engine builders. The company has recently improved its production facility with the addition of an upgraded valve guide production line, including a high-throughput and highly-automated product inspection system designed, manufactured and integrated by Innomech.

The new installation is tasked with improving quality, but it must also improve efficiency by removing a known manufacturing bottleneck. The new line is capable of going from sintered powder to finished and packaged customised parts within two days from receipt of an order.

“About 90 million valve guides pass through our inspection plant every year and quality is paramount,” says Phil Bailey, Federal-Mogul Operations Director. “If we were to deliver even a single out-of-specification part then it can take weeks, if not months, to rebuild customer confidence. The previous system was unable to keep pace with our increased order book.

“The new Innomech machine was designed with a production capacity of 10,000 components per hour and with the aim of replacing three of our previous bespoke systems which were each handling 2,000 components and becoming increasingly maintenance hungry.”

“Federal-Mogul was really pushing the technology,” explains Beale. “They wanted equipment running four times as fast, but with a wide range of extra, much higherresolution inspections, looking for tiny defects, scratches, cracks and surface blemishes. They also wanted a failure rate of one in one hundred million or better – and to date the machine has inspected over one hundred million parts and I’m not aware of a reject coming back from a customer.”

The equipment supplied by Innomech uses a combination of high-speed vision and laser inspection technologies, but the more significant factor for Federal-Mogul was the ability to integrate it into an existing line. Unlike the previous system, which required the line to be stationary for inspection, the system delivered by Innomech inspects the valve guides as they move, irrespective of orientation. “The laser systems that we used are state-of-the-art, but the key to the installation being successful was the ability to set it up quickly and understand the issues surrounding both the product and the process,” says Beale.

The upgraded line inspects 10,000 components per hour and has been designed for minimal operator intervention. It has a 50% faster part changeover time.

“We have increased our first time yields, reduced the number of machine operators, and cut our work in progress,” adds Phil Bailey. “The new system is also providing us with comprehensive, real time data on current as well as historical product quality which is invaluable in helping us to identify manufacturing issues as early as possible and to further improve process yields and overall business efficiency.”