In a quest to increase competitiveness, automotive OEMs are seeking ways to reduce costs, more effectively manage operations, and improve quality. Many have adopted the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to help them achieve these objectives.
IoT enables OEMs to connect manufacturing processes through the internet. IoT systems can collect, share, and exchange data with other connected devices or databases. Connected machines become an integrated system. A system uses the shared data to make decisions and improve a managers’ insights and allows them to proactively plan.
Such capabilities can extend beyond an OEM's production lines, and into its supply chain. IoT provides companies with opportunities to not only track products but discover ways to grow revenue and improve operational efficiencies. Vacuum impregnation is an example of a manufacturing process that is evolving with the IoT.
Vacuum Impregnation Equipment History
Manual, Mass Production Era
Vacuum impregnation was developed in the 1950s. The process was adopted quickly in various industries, particularly in the automotive and aerospace sectors, and it became the preferred method to prevent leakage of fluid or gases under pressure. Companies used batch systems, in which workers would load multiple parts into large baskets for processing.
Batch systems typically had a cycle time of 30-40 minutes. To increase productivity, the operators would increase the size of the process equipment, but this was accompanied by a reduction in finished product quality and process safety.
Automated, Just-in-Time Processing Era
The vacuum impregnation process was virtually unchanged for over 50 years. The beginning of the 21st century was a turning point for vacuum impregnation safety and production quality.
In the early 2000s, systems were modernized to meet the volume demand for lighter, aluminum parts that increased in volume following the introduction of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, and subsequent pressure to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Rather than large, top-loading batch systems, new equipment was designed to be front-loading and to process a single piece in more efficient and effective manner. Incorporating robotic handling allowed parts to move continuously between each station: the robotics reduced cycle time and improved productivity.
Automated impregnation technology then expanded to compact, manually operated systems. Manually operated systems allowed OEMs to bring vacuum impregnation in-house at a fraction of the cost. These new systems were smaller than batch systems, and the modular design enabled them to integrate with other production operations.
Digitally Integrated Processing Era
Today, manufacturers are pressured to maximize efficiency and quality throughout the entire supply chain. Vacuum impregnation equipment has evolved to cope with these challenges. Modern systems are now intelligent machines that communicate with other systems and humans to make decisions to improve production.
Four Internet of Things Principles in Vacuum Impregnation
Advanced vacuum impregnation systems have implemented IoT through the following four principles.
In order to optimize production with minimal waste, machines, devices, and people must connect and communicate with each other. An IoT enabled vacuum impregnation system communicates upstream and downstream with other system’s servers. One can remotely analyze and use this production data to improve overall equipment effectiveness of sealing parts and eliminate bottlenecks.
2. Energy Efficiency
To help make itself efficient, the system uses an algorithm to measure individual set-points to show where the system is and isn't efficient. This data can then be used to address issues that affect productivity.
An IoT-enabled vacuum impregnation system’s algorithm gauges the production inflow. With this data, the system can predict what will happen, and adjust to accommodate. This data allows the robot to adapt to how it will process upcoming parts accordingly. For example, if the vessel moisture is high, then the vacuum draw time increases. The robot will read this data, then move to another operation that is ready instead of waiting for it to complete.
3. Preventative and Predictive Maintenance
Preventative and predictive maintenance is the ability to support the manufacturer to solve short notice, urgent problems.
Through the connected production line, the vacuum impregnation system understands the throughput of the entire line. The system monitors its productivity. An operator can be notified if the productivity moves towards the upper or lower limits of its ability. This data can be used to assist in proactively scheduling preventative maintenance. As components, like the vacuum or water pumps, approach critical levels, the operator will be informed ahead of time to address the issue before it causes a system failure.
4. Decentralized Decisions
Decentralized decision making is the ability of the cyber-physical system to make decisions and perform tasks autonomously. Decentralized decisions reduce delays and improve throughput.
One example is how an IoT-augmented impregnation system interacts with an Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV). Facilities use AGVs to deliver parts to different production areas. An IoT-augmented vacuum impregnation system interacts and directs the AGV to deliver parts to and from the system. Based on data it gathers through this interaction, the system directs its robotic arm to either seal a part or move it to a reject scrap conveyor. The impregnation system robot can also read if an incorrect part is presented and isolate that non-conforming part from production.
OEMs will continue to wrestle with challenges of reducing costs, managing operations, and improving product quality. The use of IoT in advanced vacuum impregnation systems is helping OEMs and suppliers meet sealing requirements, ensure quality, and improve the bottom line.