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Mark Schmit

Quality Insider

A Bolt With a Head Full of Data

GM’s smart bolt records every process an engine block undergoes on the assembly line

Published: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 - 11:29

Waiting for me in my inbox one morning was an email from a longtime friend who works in the financial industry (that fact is sort of important later). The email’s subject line was, “Stuff you should know about.” That kind of histrionic title could have meant anything from, “I’m using code words to get you to watch a video about a kangaroo that likes to ride bikes” to stuff I actually should know about. Thankfully, it proved to be the latter.

What I received was a link to a Popular Mechanics article on GM’s new “smart bolt,” the “key to GM’s high-tech assembly line.” This is where this whole thing goes back to my point about the financial industry: People love manufacturing, whether they know much about it or not, and whether they work in the industry or not.

First and foremost, I have to admit I was struck by how, well, cool this technology is. The smart bolt, also called a data bolt, is shaped like a regular bolt and is threaded on one end, but the head is hollow. Inside is a memory chip (or RFID tag) and a coiled metal filament, which acts like an antenna. Created specially to carry an RFID tag (and have it survive the manufacturing process), smart bolts are temporarily inserted into one of a block’s or cylinder head’s existing holes that will later have a regular bolt inserted when the part is secured to an engine. The technology is still a bit too new to have had a lot of time to compare information, but along with being just really awesome, it also has amazing implications for risk management.

Data bolts store information (obviously)—2 kilobytes’ worth. That’s a very small amount of data by modern standards, when a single MP3 is somewhere between 3 and 5 megabytes. For everyone who is as bad at remembering these prefixes as I am, a kilobyte is 1,000 bytes, and a megabyte is 1,0002, or 1 million bytes, according to my online research. It seems small, when you break it down in those terms, but it is enough to record every single manufacturing process the engine block or cylinder head undergoes. This forms the key to the whole track-and-trace system GM has implemented, with each bolt’s data getting uploaded to factory servers.

That’s a long way from dial-up and floppy discs, my friends.

The main goal in implementing this new technology is quality control because each machine can now inspect the work of the machine before it. If any of the machines on the floor don’t complete their duties to perfection, the next machine in line can tell and will shunt any out-of-spec engine block or cylinder head off the line to be inspected by a worker. That’s probably as close to identifying problems before they start as I can fathom. It also makes it easier to identify problems post-production. When a supplier notifies the factory about bad parts, GM can now zero in on exactly which engines those parts were installed, based on the saved data sent by the bolts. I’m sure no one would miss the days of uncertainty and mass product recalls, right?

My pal was right. I should know about this stuff, and I’m glad I do. Of course, now I’m envisioning 1,001 other uses for a smart bolt....

First published Jan. 29, 2014, on the Manufacturing Innovation Blog.


About The Author

Mark Schmit’s picture

Mark Schmit

Mark Schmit has served multiple roles while with the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). Schmit is currently MEP’s National Accounts Manager. In this role he is responsible for developing partnerships with both the public and private sector entities. He identifies new business opportunities that leverage state & federal funding with the goal to improve the competitiveness of US- based manufacturers. His major area of focus supply chain optimization.