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Beyond the Car Wash

There aren't too many cases when a company's name becomes synonymous with its product, but it is the case with the gaging systems created by Perceptron, Inc. (Plymouth, MI). These sensor-based systems—often found at the ends of the lines in body shops, systems that have extensive rigging and frames to which the cameras are mounted in precise, defined orientations so as to capture specific data related to the bodies-in-white—are sometimes referred to as "car washes" because of the structures.

There aren't too many cases when a company's name becomes synonymous with its product, but it is the case with the gaging systems created by Perceptron, Inc. (Plymouth, MI). These sensor-based systems—often found at the ends of the lines in body shops, systems that have extensive rigging and frames to which the cameras are mounted in precise, defined orientations so as to capture specific data related to the bodies-in-white—are sometimes referred to as "car washes" because of the structures. But many times, someone will say something about "Running the vehicles through our `Perceptron' to check their dimensions."

To be sure, the people at Perceptron are not in the least bit put out by the fact that their equipment has become so common as to become part of the parlance of body shops, but they are working to go beyond in-process gaging.

One of the issues that can be troublesome in body shops, explains Dean Massab, Perceptron's executive vice president, Automotive Business Unit, is that there is so much data obtained by the multitude of systems and gages that people in the plant don't have the time or the inclination to try to sort it out. One of the consequences of this is that systems are setup in a way so that there is essentially a broad, binary information output: green light-red light. Go-no go. But ideally, it would be good to know when there is a trending of the green toward the red so that as body builds begin to drift out of the spec adjustments can be made.

What's more, consider that in the factory there is a plethora of data collected about a specific product that has been carefully designed and engineered. Although an increasing number of companies are working so that cross-functional teams have a give-and-take during the product development, with the various functions indicating that they want this look or that this can't be made by the existing equipment and so on, what becomes of all of the data that's being accumulated while the product is actually being built? It contains the factual information about what can be essentially built with the equipment on site. Is it used for future product development?

Massab lays out two paths:

Device—Cell—Plant—Enterprise
Data—Information—Intelligent Information

Going beyond the "car washes," Perceptron is addressing those two paths and creating what he describes as being "an information backbone on the factory floor," one that will not only facilitate transforming data (all of that stuff that people don't necessarily want to deal with) into information, ideally intelligent information, but which will also provide the means through which engineers "can use plant floor information for later product and process design."

It's called "IPNet." Which stands for Intelligent Process Network. And while people have been using the term network for a number of years in factory context, nowadays when people think "net" they're thinking "Internet," which is a part of the meaning that IPNet carries. Not only is IPNet about linking Perceptron's own scanning systems, but assorted other devices, too, thereby forming a network. But IPNet utilizes Microsoft's DNA architecture, an Oracle database, ActiveX controls, COM/DCOM, and last and most apparent to anyone who looks at a screen, Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0. Tom Rzeznik, IPNet product director, calls it a "portal to dimensional information from the plant floor into the company." IPNet is leveraging the Internet. Rzeznik explains that this makes information about the operations available anywhere: engineers can even dial in from home. "In the past, if there was a problem with a measurement point, people had to go out on the plant floor and find it. But with this system, they can look at setups and images from a remote site," he notes. What's more, this information can be easily accessed by people in design and engineering offices while they are working on the next vehicle.

For a number of years Perceptron has been providing analog-based sensors and special controls. The analog sensors have cables snaking out of them that have a diameter about the size of a garden hose (perhaps contributing to the "car wash" description). But now there are digital sensors with narrower-gage cables and PC controls. One of the consequences of this is that there can be simpler distribution of the sensors throughout a body shop so that there is the ability to get part dimensional information earlier in the process rather than just at the end of the line.

All of which can mean better quality now—and for future programs.