The EU-funded AUTOINSPECT project developed a digital radiographic system for inspecting automotive components. This system is capable of picking up small cracks, flaws and density variations in sintered parts. Sintering – the compacting and forming of metallic powders by heat or pressure – is a manufacturing process crucial to the automotive sector.
“The success of this project has opened up a completely new inspection market place for SMEs,” says project coordinator Mihai Iovea, general manager of Accent Pro 2000 in Romania. “I am currently negotiating a contract for developing the first X-ray scanner for sintered parts, based on AUTOINSPECT equipment design. It has been hard work – making customers realise that a small Romanian SME might have a viable solution – and this certainly would never have been possible without being part of a pan-European, EU-funded project. It just would not have happened.”
Sintered parts are typically intricate, complex shapes found in combustion engines and interior bodywork, formed through fusing these powders together; a bit like when you form a hard snowball in your hands from loose snow. This process operates at exceptionally high volume – in a car factory, a sintered part is typically produced every second – which means that any flaws or defects can have a significant impact on output and cost.
Indeed, as these parts are produced in batches of thousands, failure to detect a flaw can have serious consequences. Millions of cars have been recalled in recent years in order to fix vehicle or engine components such as accelerator pedals and brakes.
“This highlights the importance of quality control and the need for automated inspection in mass production environments,” says Iovea. “A key problem here has been the fact that current end-of-line inspection techniques have proven to be simply unable to cope with high volume manufacturing, as they involve slow manual or part-manual processes that are prone to human error.” These cracks after all are tiny – often no more than 15 to 25 microns in length.
This is why the EU-funded AUTOINSPECT project sought to develop new technology capable of identifying defects as early as possible, without adversely affecting production flow and output. The solution was to develop a digital radiographic system for online inspection of sintered parts, to enable fast detection of small cracks, flaws and density variations. The technology ‘sees’ defects early in the production line, ensuring every batch gets checked, and every flaw is flagged up.
“Digital radiographic systems are more efficient than conventional X-ray films since the exposure time is significantly reduced, leading to a faster inspection,” explains Iovea. “Also, digital radiography can be conducted in enclosed lead shielded cabinets so is safer for operators.”
Moreover, the new technology is expected to help automotive manufacturers achieve greater fuel efficiencies by opening up the possibility of using lighter materials. These materials must be defect free, as any impurities would affect performance; something that until now has limited the application of lighter sintered automotive parts.
The priority now is to commercialise the new inspection system. This will be a gradual process, because for each new customer, preliminary tests must be done and parts adapted to fulfil specific customer requirements. Nonetheless, the AUTOINSPECT team is confident that their digital inspection system can revolutionise how the automotive industry operates.
Below AutoInspect project achievement