Probing without limits

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Linear displacement sensors come in a range of sizes down to 3mm

Jonathan Newell talks to Solartron Metrology about how its digital measurement system reaches into the heart of the automotive industry.

Industry 4.0 is something very new to many industries. It requires a shift in thinking to bring connected intelligence to the shop floor, through information processing at the edge of the network, smart sensors and decision making software.

However, for some companies, connected industry is something that they’ve already been offering for a long time – the advent of I4.0 merely provides them with more filaments in the web of collaborative devices.

One such company is Solartron Metrology, part of Ametek Ultra Precision Technologies. I met the company’s Justin Cottrell and James Leighton at the Advanced Engineering Show in November at the NEC, where I saw the company’s Orbit 3 Digital Measurement System. This is a modular approach to gathering and sharing linear measuring transducer data, as well as data from other types of sensors.

Digital measurement

The purpose of Orbit 3 is to bring all measurement sensors into one network and eliminate the necessity for analogue transducers and amplifiers, which would require individually setting up and maintaining.

The modular system comprises measurement modules, PC and network controllers, drivers and software applications, all designed to make the capture of data easier.

The DIN-rail-mounted system can be used with third party sensors and transducers. It can be related to linear measurement, temperature and pressure monitoring, as well as other applications, the data from which can be shared across the connected network.

A software development kit (SDK) is available to engineers for programming the output from the DAQ units to provide the information needed, such as absolute measurements, comparisons to standard, degree of conformance, process drift or a simple pass/fail decision.

Automotive applications

Solartron Metrology produces a range of different sensor probes with accuracies down to fractions of microns which can be arranged in arrays for performing measurement and gauging on components. This technique is frequently used for comparing production parts to an established “gold product”.

At the inspection station, the output can be a simple pass or fail decision, but the data from the sensor array can also be analysed by engineers to detect a drift in process parameters and take action before parts start to reach tolerance limits and fail inspection.

According to Cottrell, there are still often instances in the automotive industry and generally in mechanical assemblies where absolute measurement and tolerance conformance is not a pressing issue – this is because there is still some selective assembly in the industry, whereby an oversized part can be mated with a correspondingly undersized part.

However, this is much less the case now than in the past and sensitivity to tolerance is increasing in the automotive industry, especially as maintenance issues make selective assembly an issue of poor repeatability and quality.

Cottrell gave the example of where sensor probes of different sizes that can go down to 3mm diameter are used for piston crown inspection. “The profile of the piston crown is something on which the sensors can be used as a gauge. 3mm sensor probes can be arranged in a tight array and offered up to the gold standard, the software records the readings and then a production part is placed in the sensor array in place of the gold standard and gauged,” he explained.

The profile of parts is not limited to precision engine components, but increasingly also on parts that may not have previously been associated with tight tolerances. “We are seeing changes in the automotive industry which are creating more demands on the sensor systems made by us,” said Cottrell. “One such change is in the measurement of windscreen profiles, something for which there is no flexibility in tolerance.”

Jonathan Newell
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