19 October 2007

Marked for fast lane

F1 teams typically strip down and rebuild three cars (two racecars and one spare) after every race or test event. Each car is assembled from some 3,500 components all of which are subject to a process of continuous improvement, resulting in perhaps 10,000 components being associated with each car at any one time.

Historically many of the larger components and assemblies have been marked with human readable information to enable traceability. As part of an ongoing effort to continuously improve reliability and safety, part marking and traceability is now becoming a must for even the smallest individual components, with F1 and other motor sport teams taking component identification very seriously.

Part traceability

Direct Part Marking (DPM) makes it possible to track a product from the time of production to the point when it is scrapped. To achieve this, a high-quality permanent mark able to withstand extreme conditions such as heat, abrasion and caustic fluids etc. is required. Having marked the part, an Enterprise Resource Planning system ( ERP ) and a relational database can then maintain an accurate history of individual components, when and how it was made, where it has been, how it has been used, and for how long.

Developed in the late 1980s in the U.S., the data matrix code ( Fig.1 ) is now globally accepted within the automotive, aerospace, and electronics industries. Due to their small size and large data capacity, the data matrix codes make it possible to identify nearly every component on the car from wishbones and steering racks, to pistons, fuel injectors and even nuts and bolts. The data matrix has a high degree of redundancy and is resistant to marking defects, providing high reliability. It has built-in error correction and a minimum print contrast requirement of 20 percent when reading with an industrial-quality camera.

Data matrix codes can be made by methods other than laser marking, including ink jet, electro-chemical etch, and dot peen. For the F1 application however, the variety of materials and surface finishes is wide with exotic materials and alloys such as titanium and magnesium used extensively. The laser marking solution is preferred as it is able to produce good permanent ‘readable' codes on virtually all materials without compromising the structural integrity of the component. The laser is flexible and able to produce either round or square matrix elements although for dense information, squares are often preferred. In addition, the laser is able to mark small codes (down to 1mm x 1mm), which is not possible using other techniques.

High beam quality

F1 teams have used lasers for many years for part marking. Recently the trend has been to not only to reduce the marking area but also to automate the reading process allowing faster and more reliable identification. The lasers being used however, were unable to meet the challenge of marking small IDM codes due to the relatively large focused spot, like painting with a broad brush.

Small IDM codes approaching just 1mm2 can be produced using the Rofin PowerLine E – 10 laser ( Fig.2 ) and as a result, Rofin has now installed several of these endpumped vanadate laser sources at a number of F1 facilities. The high beam quality produces a small focused spot and this combined with short pulse lengths enables high quality IDM codes to be produced on almost all materials including steel, titanium and aluminium. The PowerLine E – 10 laser can actually produce much smaller codes but both the mechanic and the code reader would struggle to actually find and read the code. The ability to be able to produce such a small code means that nearly all components used in the car can now be permanently marked and subsequently identified and tracked.

Rofin laser systems offer the benefits of non-contact, abrasion-resistant, permanent marking on many different materials with high speed and high precision. Rofin offers a complete range of lasers for marking applications including CO2, YAG, Vanadate and Fibre Lasers.

Contact: Mike Batchelor

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