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Metrology

Off-Line Inspection Software Speeds Up Manufacturing and Assembly

Verisurf software and FARO Laser Tracker enable large-scale, accurate 3-D measurements for California aerospace company.

Published: Friday, August 28, 2009 - 16:17

Developing and refining the advanced processes for its manufacturing and assembly operation is no small task for Irvine, California-based Coast Composites Inc. The company makes large, precise tooling for the aerospace industry. The scale and accuracy requirements of their product creates quality control issues that were addressed using a combination of FARO Laser Tracker and Verisurf software.

“Some of the high-precision tooling we produce for customers is really huge, up to 100 feet long," says Steve Anthony, Coast Composites IT manager. Size creates its own set of challenges and opportunities, and has also led Coast to its recent plant expansion from 85,000 square feet to more than 200,000 square feet. “When you build huge tooling you need lots of room,” Anthony explains.

Even though the molds it produces are extremely large (typically 2- to 60-feet long), Coast still must meet precise tolerance requirements to satisfy its customers’ specifications. “We’re talking fine finishes and tolerances of four to five thousandths over a 50- to 60-foot length,” Anthony explains. “And, like any other QC requirement, we have to be able to prove to our customers that we have met or exceeded their specs. To do that has taken us into some interesting new technologies.”

Originally, company quality control was accomplished using probes on its mills. “The problem was probing tied up our machines,” says Anthony. “We did in-process inspection, then pulled the parts off to do final assembly. Then we had to put the assembly back on the machine to do final inspection. That was time consuming. We needed a better way to do it.” That better way turned out to be portable coordinate measuring machines (CMM).

“In a regular job shop, when a part is machined, you either check it on the machine using probing or you take it to a CMM somewhere,” he explains. “In our case, though, the parts are just too big to move. Long ago we figured out we had to bring the CMM to the parts. So, when the technology for portable CMMs became available, we jumped on it.”

After investing in early generation portable laser tracker CMMs. Coast found the technology good but not perfect.

“Laser trackers are a great concept,” says Anthony, “because they’re fast and accurate over very long distances. But in the beginning, the CAD software that drove those machines wasn’t very powerful. Today, that problem has mostly been solved. We’ve been using FARO laser trackers for several years, which was a major improvement over on-machine probing, but still had drawbacks in its software capabilities.”

Real control and power came to Coast Composites’ process with the introduction of Verisurf software. “We were approached by Verisurf, which had created very specific software that had a lot of promise,” Anthony recalls.

“Ernie [Verisurf president, Ernie Husted] said his software was a model-based manufacturing inspection solution that could interface with nearly any measurement device, including our FARO laser trackers.

“We were skeptical at first but very pleased with the results,” Anthony continues. “They solved most of the problems we faced at the time. Verisurf actually sits on top of Mastercam, so it had all the import capabilities of Mastercam. Basically, when you buy Verisurf, you’re buying a seat of Mastercam, too, which provides a full suite of CAD modeling features, including solids, surfaces, wireframe, and drafting, plus all the translators we needed for our customers’ CAD platforms. But the main thing was that Verisurf made those FaroArms do everything they’re mechanically capable of doing.

“All of our customers require different reporting. Verisurf has an HTML-based report format that you can customize. We can give customers any kind of report they want, including raw point data. If Verisurf collects data, it can report it.”

Verisurf software and a FARO Laser Tracker (right) are used to check critical dimensions on a mold that will be used to make the entire upper wing skin for the Joint Strike fighter. (Photo courtesy Coast Composites Inc.) 

  

Primer: Off-line inspection

For most of its projects, Coast receives a solid model of the component, including the critical dimensions and inspection points.

“For QA purposes, we import the model into Verisurf, and then our guys move the reflective mirror to collect all the points that have to be verified,” explains Anthony. “They push a button on their pendant and Verisurf records the point. Or they can scan thousands of points to get a point cloud in a given area. Either way, Verisurf records it all and compares the data against the model. If there’s a problem, it lets the operator know immediately.

“When you’re inspecting really huge projects, the operator can get too far from the computer monitor to read it. So Verisurf has come up with the ability to transmit the data via wireless to a PDA device. We use Dell Axims, so now the operator can look at his PDA and see what’s happening. It’s fast and very efficient.”

Find more uses

Coast also uses the Verisurf and FARO Laser Tracker combination during mold assembly. “The system works perfectly to help us locate points on the mold for brackets, holes, you name it,” Anthony explains. “The model tells you where it wants a hole or a part to be assembled. The operator moves the little mirror to find the exact location on the assembly. He marks the spot and he’s done. It’s that simple. It’s a fantastic time saver. No more measuring and checking the old-fashioned way.”

The system is also used at customer sites to help set up molds. “We use them for leveling, dimensioning, and inspection,” he says. “The whole setup consists of the FARO Laser Tracker and a PC on wheels. It’s very portable.”

Making off-line inspection positive

Coast Composites has seen significant benefits since it began using the combination. “In a nutshell, the off-line system has made our life a lot easier,” says Anthony. “First, it speeds up our manufacturing process by eliminating the need for on-machine inspection. Second, it greatly speeds the mold assembly process by allowing us to quickly locate holes and components and to level the molds. Third, our customers make a lot of revisions. Verisurf can read those and give us the new data we need for checking. I really can’t put a number on our savings, but it has been significant. It can easily equate to weeks in terms of faster throughput.”

The bottom line from Coast’s perspective: “Basically, off-line inspection with Verisurf and the laser tracker has allowed us to perform all the QA tasks we need to do to make our customers happy.”

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