It is a 100-mile drive from National Machinery to Saline, Michigan - home of the Mectron High Speed Inspection Systems. In the last two years the companies have formed a strong marketing partnership, so it made perfect sense for Phil Matten to conclude his US trip with a visit to these champions of quality.
Mectron Engineering Company, Inc is a family owned business, established in 1968 by Jim Hanna, who turned his inventive mind to the design and manufacture of quality control systems, utilizing eddy current and ultrasonic equipment. Today, it is Jim’s son, Mark who serves as president of a company renowned for being at the forefront of laser inspection technology. In fact Mectron now has over 450 machines operating across the world, ensuring the integrity of a wide spectrum of critical fasteners and parts.
As you would expect of a specialist, Mectron technology business has a relatively small team of thirty people. Significantly, though, that includes qualified and experienced electrical, mechanical and software engineers. Interpret that as meaning Mectron is committed to tightly controlling every aspect of its own product and you would be completely correct. The company develops, builds, and meticulously quality controls virtually every element of its range of inspection machinery. Only the fabrication of the frame on which the technology is mounted is outsourced.
As a tour of the Saline facility amply demonstrates, Mectron has no qualms in putting its reputation on the line - on a daily basis. It uses 14 machines in-house to provide sub-contract inspection services, mainly to the close-by US automotive industry. The facility also, of course, provides an excellent ‘try before you buy” opportunity for prospective machine purchases. With a daily throughput of over 1 million parts its not surprising to be told Mectron has inspected over two billion parts on its own premises.
“The US automotive industry has a difficult historic perception to shake off,” says vice president, Scott Corrunker, “but today I would say the quality of manufacturing here is closing in on Europe or Japan. Just as importantly the automotive quality divisions have become financially responsible in their own right. It’s no longer about PPMs, it’s about incidents and the opportunity to immediately recoup costs.”
That makes Detroit a tough proving ground for everything that Mectron develops. Recent advances in the company’s laser technology, though, have taken Mectron into the even more stringent arenas of aerospace and medical components. No surprise, then, that Mectron maintains a conservative approach and proves every piece of equipment and technology before allowing a customer to rely on it.
At one stage 80% of Mectron sales were to North America. The relationship with National Machinery, who now represents Mectron in Japan, China and many countries in Europe, has played an important role in strengthening international reputation and sales. “If we had to rely on sales in the US, today,” says Scott Corrunker ruefully, “things really would be tough.” Mectron’s assembly floor is witness to international success. Just a quick glance reveals inspection machines under construction for the USA, Korea, Japan and Germany.
Nearby in the final training room is a fully specified Qualifier® Q-series system ready for shipping to India. It is what Scott Corrunker describes as “the Cadillac of inspection equipment.” A patented, light-laser array provides 360 degree, high-speed inspection of each part. This literally all-round performance is crucial, as Scott demonstrates with a genuine part, on which threads are clogged with excessive anticorrosion coating. A defect, though, that only extends around, maybe, 15% of the circumference. The Qualifier’s touch-screen interface makes it easy to see exactly what each laser ‘spotted’. It is immediately clear that the first three lasers did not pickup the defect. The fourth laser detects the first sign of the damage and the fifth detects gross damage. Which means a safely rejected part. “I could have had four cameras aimed at this part and still accept it as good product,” emphasizes Scott Corrunker. “Now, this is a gross defect that would stop the automatic feed system on the line, with all the financial consequences that brings.”
The thing that sets Mectron apart from many of its competitors,” continues Scott, “is that we use lasers, whereas the vast majority of other inspection systems use cameras. We do use cameras, for internal measurements, but the problem with a camera is that the tolerance is field of view related. As you expand the field of view, for a larger part, the image resolution of any specific area deteriorates and the inspection tolerances are affected detrimentally. That is not the case with a laser. The part can be several inches long and every segment will be thoroughly inspected.” Mectron’s latest generation laser, incidentally, is 100 times faster than its predecessor, which means defect detection every six ten thousands of an inch .0006") over the entire length of the part.
In the case of this “Cadillac”, though, eight lasers are just the beginning. Previously Mectron has used a mechanical device to check for overall length. In Europe, particularly, it encountered requirements to check both overall and specific lengths – “length under head, head height, the whole nine yards” says Terry Hoffmann, vice-president at Mectron. “The latest technology that we have developed,” says Scott Corrunker, “means the complete elimination of that mechanical gauge and the installation of four additional lasers. These lasers are acceleration monitors as well as stack-up height and length gauges. Now we can tell the exact length of, say, the dog point, the knurl, the thread roll, the shoulder, the head – all in the same tolerances as we apply to diameters.”
Impressed? You should be, but wait, there’s more. This machine also incorporates Mectron’s MI-9000 Magnetic Imagery™ instrumentation – the latest evolution of the eddy-current technology that started it all in 1968. Developing a magnetic image of each part provides the opportunity to detect critical metallurgical defects particularly emanating from incorrect heat treatment.
The Qualifier® is a complex piece of technology, designed and built with extreme care. Mectron assembles its own lasers and eddy current instruments, including the capability to wind an eddy current coil to meet the requirements of a specific inspection application.
Reassuringly, as Scott Corrunker and Terry Hoffman demonstrate, the Qualifier’s operation is considerably more straightforward. A genuinely user-friendly interface means a rapid trip through no more than four touch-screens to set up the machine each morning. The Windows based system is multilingual and, equally important, clear and logical in terms of its progressions and feedback.
The cost of each Mectron machine includes operator training at Saline. Mectron prefers this because it eliminates any distractions and ensures complete focus on the crucial initial training and acclimatization. Typically the process takes 2-5 days, after which the machine is shipped to site, and a Mectron engineer is on-hand to complete installation and carry through further training and support.
Back in the assembly area there is one more innovation Scott Corrunker is keen to highlight. The new linear crack detection station can be added to Mectron systems available now or supplied in the past. Its development directly reflects growing customer concern over the risks presented from substandard raw materials finding their way into fastener production and the requirement to effectively detect cracks. A belt system rotates the fastener through 720 degrees in front of an eddy current probe, which traces the outside of the fastener. All Mectron systems are set up on a lateral logic basic – “in other words,” says Scott Corrunker, “each part has to pass each phase of inspection; otherwise it is rejected.”
There is plenty to see and understand at Mectron. Here it is only possible to highlight key areas of distinction for a company that is clearly committed to consistent excellence in all that it does. It is worth noting, as Scott Corrunker puts it, that Mectron is able to quote ‘apples for apples’, for example, by offering a two-laser inspection system to compete with a twin-camera optical system. Don’t be surprised, though, when he talks you through the risks associated with limiting your field of view, so to speak.
One outstanding quality of Mectron equipment that does demand special emphasis is its versatility. You only have to walk through Mectron’s own inspection area or look at the customers for whom new machines are being built to realize the extraordinary spectrum of parts and characteristics this equipment is capable of inspecting. The key point, though, is that switching from one part to another rarely requires any mechanical adjustment and the quality of the interface makes set up extremely rapid. Whereas many inspection systems seen in the field are dedicated to a single or limited range of components, with extensive adjustment required for a changeover, Mectron stands tall as a consummate all-round performer.