Ford shows off new inspection technology at Chicago assembly plant

By Chelsea Wallis
June 2, 2011 – Times of Northwest Indiana

Workers inspect gaps in the doors of vehicles as informed by laser technology. (Chelsea Wallis/MNS)

Ford Motor Co.’s Chicago Assembly Plant is one of the first production lines to benefit from a $100 million global investment in new laser inspection technology. The technology is aimed at improving vehicle quality.

The technology uses robotic measurements to target noise control, a top issue for industry quality, and final product inspections before the vehicle is released to the delivery department.

The company showed off the technology to the media Thursday at the plant at 130th Street and Torrence Avenue in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood. The plant produces the Explorer, Taurus and Lincoln MKS.

The robots are not designed to increase production on the assembly line or save money, said chief engineer Ron Ketelhut, unless you take into account fewer mistakes reducing warranty costs.

“We’re not interested in replacing workers,” Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood said.

To reduce wind and road noise, four robotic arms inspect any opening in the vehicle that could create noise or water leaks. The robots use light-wave technology to measure gaps to one-tenth of a millimeter, Ketelhut said.

Information about the doors, hood and sunroof, for example, is then projected to monitors as an illustration, which workers can hand-check. If a pattern of defects is recognized, the machine also can alert workers further ahead in the line to correct the problem, plant specialist Christopher Bodanza said. And the robotic arms are adaptable, he added, so they can measure different vehicle models without major adjustments.

Laser technology also is being implemented with end-of-the-line inspections to ensure all of the correct parts and details are installed.

Whether detecting an incorrect hubcap or a missing four-wheel drive sticker, the new inspection system adds another layer of protection for the customer, manager Tom Hernandez said. All of the data is stored for three months according to a vehicle’s individual barcode, allowing for direct accountability once it leaves the plant.

But the technology is not yet running at full. The robotic measurement systems are at about 95 percent, and the final product inspection technology is at about 20 percent. Both are expected to run at 100 percent by the end of the month, Sherwood said.

The technology is also operational in Ford’s Michigan assembly plant and its Saarlouis, Germany, plant.

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