GM’s High-Tech Bolt is Catching Mistakes Before They Happen

A new kind of smart bolt collects data during manufacturing at a New York State General Motors factory to help the automaker reduce mistakes during the assembly process. Ask any seasoned mechanic, today’s automotive engines are more complicated than they have ever been. There is a lot that can go wrong when assembling these high-tech engines. General Motors has taken a high-tech approach at catching most problems before they can become serious. The key to this approach is a humble but smart bolt. The 75-year-old factory in Tonawanda, N.Y. underwent a $400 million upgrade to start building a new line of Gen 5, six- and eight-cylinder engines. The manufacturing facility is the automaker’s first to implement a new “track-and-trace” system by using radio-frequency-identification (RFID) technology. GM has used RFID tags in its factories for more than 10 years to identify assembled engines, but now the company is attaching them directly to the cylinder heads and engine blocks using what the company calls a data bolt. The data bolt is shaped like a regular bolt and is threaded on one end, but the head is hollow. Inside the bolt, secured with epoxy, are a memory chip (RFID tag) and a coiled metal filament, which acts as an antenna. Just like the name implies, the data bolt stores 2 kilobytes’ worth of data. When compared to today’s devices this is a very small amount of data, only a fraction of an MP3 audio file’s 3 to 5 megabytes. However, this is enough to record every single manufacturing process the engine block or cylinder head undergoes. There are about 50 different points throughout the production line where data gets transferred to and from the bolts. Almost every automated machine on the line has an RFID scanner to read the data bolt before it performs its task, and another RFID writer that logs new information onto the bolt once the machine has done its job. If any of the machines on the floor don’t complete their duties to perfection, the next machine on the line can detect this and will report any engine block or cylinder head that isn’t up to specs and set it aside to be inspected by a worker. In addition, if a block or head gets pulled off the line to undergo a gauge test for appropriate tolerances but winds up getting left offline at the end of a shift, it can’t be put back into the wrong place in the production process, which was a problem in the past. “That has saved us a couple of times already,” Peter Laskiewicz, a manufacturing process engineer for GM, says, “especially during a launch, when you’ve got a lot of parts everywhere and are trying to understand where they go.” Skipping a single process could crash one of the 30 new digitally operated milling machines that use computerized coordinates to hone surfaces and drill and top holes in the engine blocks and cylinder heads. These, types of mistakes can cost the company about $1 million apiece, Laskiewicz says. Although quality control during the manufacturing process is the main goal of the new data-bolt RFID system, it is also proving to be a big help in post-production troubleshooting. For instance, if a supplier notifies the factory of a bad batch of parts, it’s easy to break that batch down to the exact engine on which they were installed using the database of information saved from the bolts. General Motors plans to implement the track-and-trace RFID systems in other factories but hasn’t said when it will do so.

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