EU-funded researchers and industrialists are developing monitoring tools for the production line that can prevent and correct defects faster. This innovation will reduce costs, downtime and wastage, and lead to better, safer products.
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Defects and flaws in a product cost businesses dearly, and not just in wasted materials and time. They also erode customer confidence. In this digital age, reports of bugs and faults can quickly spread. Damaging as all this is for a business or industry, it is also bad news for Europe, where efforts to kick-start the economy and boost competitiveness can be undermined one defect at a time.
This is why industry is demanding solutions to avoid these so-called ‘end-of-line’ failures – solutions able not only to predict defects before they are generated, but also to detect them before it is too late.
“The earlier they are detected and fixed during production, the better it is in terms of less scrap and less downtime on assembly lines, resulting in cost-savings,” says Ainhoa Gorrotxategi of Tecnalia Research & Innovation, Spain’s first private entity dedicated to transforming research, development and innovation into new business opportunities.
Take the automobile industry as an example. By 2020, it is expected that up to 20% of world-wide automobile production will include electrical powertrains – the machinery that powers and propels electric vehicles.
“Europe’s car-makers need a smart and reliable way of producing this product to meet both the quantity and quality of parts needed,” says Gorrotxategi who is coordinating the EU-funded MUPROD project. The project focuses on innovative and proactive quality control systems for in-process, multi-stage defect reduction.
MUPROD’s solutions could help to cut the 0.5% of losses currently reported due to late detection of errors during electrical powertrain assembly. “That could lead to cost savings of EUR 2 million per year,” Gorrotxategi predicts. “We also see potential to use this approach in the production of other high-price, high-volume electrical parts, such as steering drives, starters and generators.”
MUPROD’s team has developed new software and hardware solutions which introduce several levels of innovation – technological, model-based and methodological – into integrated quality control systems for production.
These real-time, multi-data gathering techniques use state-of-the-art sensors and inspection equipment, with “intelligent” actuators, or micro-machines, to automatically respond or “act” when the advanced monitoring and diagnostic systems detect faults.
Once fully tested, the MUPROD system will radically change traditional end-off-line quality control techniques by offering an in-process solution targeting zero defects and minimal manufacturing wastage, notes the research team, which includes partners from Spain, Israel, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
“The trick will be to develop a universal system which can be integrated into different production processes, and meet the needs of various batch sizes and customisation levels,” explains Gorrotxategi.
Another application for MUPROD’s work is the manufacturing of large but lightweight parts for wind power. Lighter materials are complex to make, with often unacceptably high variability and defect rates. MUPROD can help parts manufacturers attain full uniformity along the production line.
Customised biomedical parts are another MUPROD application. For example, the end-of-line production defect rate for the tiny catheters (flexible tubes) used for treating patients with cardiovascular disease is as high as 80%. But with MUPROD’s help, this rate could be cut to just 5% during the extrusion process, reducing both production time and cost by 70%. The greater accuracy during manufacturing paves the way for the production of even smaller catheters to tackle blood-flow problems in harder-to-reach places of the body.
Now well into its second year, the team has completed the main research activities on time, including developing new inspection techniques, sensors, statistical and mechanistic models, intelligent fixtures, and decision-making tools. In the final year, MUPROD plans to implement and demo these developments in the different industrial areas, says Gorrotxategi.