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General Motors Factory Installs Smart Bolts in Engine Blocks, Cylinder Heads

At its plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., the automaker is using bolts with embedded passive RFID tags from Balluff to ensure no mistakes are made during the machining process, and to create a record of the completed procedures.
By Claire Swedberg
Jan 10, 2014

In Tonawanda, N.Y., General Motors' factory temporarily installs a bolt with an embedded passive RFID tag on every cylinder head and engine block that GM uses to make its Gen 5 six- and eight-cylinder engines, in order to track the assembly process and verify that the procedures are being carried out. Since going live in early 2012, the Gen 5 assembly line has been fitted with 284 RFID read-write heads, and each engine block and cylinder head comes with a 13.56 MHz RFID-enabled bolt compliant with the ISO 15693 standard.

To track each machining process, GM's Tonawanda engine plant uses a specialized RFID bolt, shown here attached to an engine block.
General Motors has been employing RFID technology for engine assembly for more than a decade at the Tonawanda site, according to Mark Chiappetta, the plant's manufacturing engineering superintendent. The company has been applying a passive 13.56 MHz Siemens Simatic RF340T tag, containing 8 kilobytes of memory, to every pallet on which engines are loaded, enabling the collection of data regarding each engine's assembly. First, an engine assembly is placed on a pallet, and the engine's unique ID number is then input and linked to the RFID number on the tag permanently affixed to that pallet. The pallet tag is read and written to as the engine moves through dozens of assembly processes, is removed from the pallet and is shipped out of the plant for installation in a vehicle. By tracking each pallet, GM maintains a record of every process, as well as when it was completed. This information not only helps the plant ensure that the correct processes are being carried out in the proper order in real time, but also provides historical data in the event of a factory recall or faulty part, helping the firm to identify all engines assembled at a specific time or by a particular machine.

The factory also attaches a Balluff passive 13.56 MHz button-shaped tag to each machining tool. The tools are periodically swapped out in machines used for assembly, and installing the wrong tool in a machine could result in potentially serious errors. By installing an RFID reader in the machine and placing tags on the machine tools, GM can ensure that such mistakes are not made.

GM's Mark Chiappetta
When the plant began preparing for assembly of the new Gen 5 engine in 2011, Chiappetta says, GM began looking into ways in which RFID could be used for the assembly of heads and blocks prior to their placement into engines. Typically, this requires dozens of processes, such as cutting, molding or washing, and it is important that the assembly machines are adjusted for the proper part before any work is performed at each point along the assembly line. If the machine processes an incorrect or incomplete part, that could result in damage to the part or to the machine itself. To ensure that this does not occur, GM and other manufacturers typically use two processes—a visual system with a camera to confirm the Part Unique Number (PUN) printed in human-readable text, and a 2D bar code on that part to indicate the kind of part it is—as well as a technology known as a bump code probe. The latter machine is installed at each operation location, providing redundancy in the event that the visual technology fails to properly identify the part.

The bump code probe consists of a mechanical probe assembly that drops from the ceiling and applies multiple probes with built-in springs to a part, in order to measure its size and dimensions, thereby confirming the part's type, as well as the processes already completed on it. This technology, Chiappetta says, can be expensive. In addition, by using RFID, the company determined that it could collect data regarding each unique item's movements, and track when it may have left the assembly line and was then returned, based on data written to the RFID-tagged bolt and read via a handheld or fixed interrogator.

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