NASCAR Team Measures Success

November 1, 2003
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By making investments in new technology, Joe Gibbs Racing teams have sped to the top of the standings.

The Joe Gibbs Racing Team has led the field both on the track and in the testing of parts. Photo: Joe Gibbs Racing Team, courtesy of Mahr Federal


Don Jolley, a metrology engineer, sets up a part on a system to check for contour profiles. A washer is shown here. All parts are tested before going into an engine. Photo: Larry Adams, Quality

The engine roared, the individual parts working individually and collectively at thousands of pounds of G-force as driver Tony Stewart passed Ryan Newman on lap 327, with just seven laps to go before the finish. The race, 500 miles long, was back and forth but Stewart held on to the lead and the #20 Home Depot car blasted across the finish line just 0.6 seconds ahead the #12 ALLTEL car.

The first place finish by Stewart, the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup champion and driver with Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR, Huntersville, NC), at the Oct. 11 UAW-GM Quality 500 in Charlotte, NC, was his 17th Winston Cup series victory for this premier driver and the successful racing team behind him.

Joe Gibbs Racing has had a phenomenal run the past several years. Stewart's teammate, Bobby Labonte, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries car, also took home top honors as the 2000 Winston Cup champion. But, just how does a NASCAR racing team become a success? Good drivers are a must of course, as are good mechanics and a pit crew. But, for one of the most successful teams, the Joe Gibbs Racing team, it took a focus on, and investments in, quality. Since making their investments, the team has lapped their competition.

Just seven years ago, the Huntersville, NC-based racing team had practically no computer numerical control (CNC) or metrology equipment. The equipment they did have consisted of little more than a mill and a height stand.

Wanting to make just a few parts, the company installed one CNC machining center. That one machine led to two, then four and continued to grow as the team looked to make better parts for the motors that power the fleet's 30 cars.

"Today, we have 10 CNCs that run two shifts a day, or about 22 hours of machining a day, five days a week and we produce more than 400 different parts," says Mark Bringle, CNC manager. "We also have a complete metrology lab, a research and development department and 13 engineers."

While the company still relies on hundreds of parts from outside vendors, each of which are 100% inspected in the metrology lab, the company began building parts less than seven years ago as a desire to take control of its own destiny by improving quality, achieving quicker turnaround time and keeping those parts proprietary. "People talk," Bringle says. "Keeping it in the shop keeps us out of the focal point of conversation by people working at a supplier's business."

Fast turnaround times are the biggest benefit derived from the investments, Bringle says. The North Carolina area has many suppliers capable of making their parts to specification, but they could not always do it as quick as needed, especially if a problem with a part is suspected.

"If something comes up, we can have a corrective action taken in a single day, and we are not running a risk of using a suspect part in one of our cars that week," says Bringle. "We can get it done faster, and if we can get something to the car for this weekend, then we have an advantage on the track."

The variety of parts produced include clutch pedals, break pedals, distributor shafts, alternator covers, rocker bars and the boring of sleeves, lifter bars, cylinder heads and manifolds and the remanufacturing of pistons to proprietary specifications. Some parts are constantly changing, partly because NASCAR rules change depending on the type of racetrack, and often as JGR develops new ways to build better parts.

The company begins each racing season with about 60 engine blocks, producing 20 motors, and as the year progresses, additional engines will be built, and each part for those engines tested. The company employs six engine builders who continually build one to two engines per builder, per week.



Machining centers are situated in the manufacturing area of the facility. In all, 10 machining centers are set up in a U-shaped workcell with a shop floor CMM at its head. Photo: Larry Adams, Quality

Speed is key

When the racing team began to assemble its manufacturing operations, the equipment was brought in almost piecemeal. Equipment was added over time through official sponsorships with machining and metrology equipment manufacturers such as Daewoo (West Caldwell, NJ), Mahr Federal (Providence, RI) and Starrett (Athol, MA) and the shop altered to make room for them. This meant that the selection of some equipment was made based on logistical reasons such as space, and on other occasions meant that space had to be begged and borrowed.

For instance, the machining centers are set up in a classic, U-shaped workcell where parts travel a U circuit as they are machined. At the end of the line, Bringle says they wanted to measure parts as they came out of the workcell and be close enough to the workers so that the part could easily and quickly be transported to a Rapid Check coordinate measuring machine (CMM) no matter which machine produced the part. But, the cramped space required a CMM with a small footprint, and the shopfloor environment required a rugged piece of equipment. The CMM also had to be able to measure complex parts.

"The main thing is we were trying to utilize space," Bringle says. Speed considerations are important, but the CMM still had to be versatile enough to measure the hundreds of intricate and diverse parts."The parts that we make are all pretty small and all fit on the CMM, but we needed a CMM that had an articulating head that had a different plane that allowed us to check small, but complicated shapes and borings."

Another area affected is the research and development department. This department had to make room for a Primar MX44 multi-axis, CNC measuring station that was placed in a three-walled cubbyhole. Because of its extra axis, the CMM is used to check cams, cranks and journal alignments. "Not only is it measuring XYZ, the table is also an axis and it will rotate," Bringle says. "As far as I know, we are the only team that has one of these."

The vertical system should be in the metrology lab on the second floor, its location itself a concession to space, but the CMM was too heavy to go up to that level. Having this tool on a separate floor from the met lab is not the best setup, but it is one that has already been rethought. By next year, JGR's current 135,000-square-foot facility, which also includes a recently added, state-of-the-art auditorium, gymnasium and pit crew practice area, will be expanded to include a 108,000-square-foot addition called the Joe Gibbs Technology Center. The new space will allow the the CNC manufacturing operations and the metrology lab to take over an existing 35,000-square-foot space that more than doubles their existing facility.



The met lab

The current met lab was established only 18 months ago in what was once a warehousing area. The room has been adapted for the purpose, its temperature and environmental conditions monitored closely, and a cornucopia of measuring equipment takes up the majority of floor space. "Nobody ever thought about this when designing the building; we had to beg and borrow the space," says Bringle.

The met lab's pace varies: slow at times, and then, suddenly, frenzied but focused. Here, like on the racetrack, speed and accuracy are key. This department inspects 100% of the parts shipped in by suppliers. "Any parts that we receive from outside vendors we consider to be bad parts until we can prove that they are good parts in this room," Bringle says. "We don't put anything in the car that we get from an outside company until we can check it and identify that it is a good part."

The beginning of the season is very busy. The initial order for engines and requisite parts is just the beginning. "We might have 400 valves come in at one time, and we will have to inspect each one," Bringle says. "It is the same way with connecting rods, rocker arms and lifters; they tend to come in batches. We get a supply built up of parts that we have tested, and then we resupply so that we have new parts for later in the season."

Some of the equipment and its use are off limits to visitors for proprietary reasons, but others are not. This includes the OMS400 optics-based multisensor CMM, that features a video, through-the-lens laser and touch probe. One use for this, according to Danny Moss, QC engineer, is to verify that lifters meet specifications.

"I can check the crest on the top of the lifter with a laser, check the roundness and cylindricity on it with the probe and can line it up to see if the dome (of the lifter) is in the middle of the lifter with the video lens," he says.

The lifter is one of those small, but critical parts that works independently and collectively and which must withstand tremendous G-forces as the car roars around the track. "The roller lifter touches the cam shaft, and the roller pushes the lifter up which pushes the push rod and opens the valve," says Moss. "If the roller has pits and divots in it, then you can develop fractures and cracks, and there goes that lifter."

Another tool used extensively is a MMQ44 form tester. The tester is used for a variety of purposes, but one of the most important is to inspect form errors on the top and stem of the valve. Each measurement produces a catalog of information that is sent with the part. "A valve is very important, and we probably make more measurements on valves than anything. It is that critical of a part," says Bringle. "It opens and shuts 110 times a second for the four hours of a race at 2,600Gs of inertia and 2,000 pounds of pressure.

Another important device is a surface finish and contour surface tester. The Perthometer has two drive units, one for surface finish measurement and one for contour measurement. Both drive units support interchangeable styli. The surface finish drive uses a diamond tip. The surface finish data is collected with application specific software and analyzed to determine such parameters as Ra, Rz and Rk. The contour drive has a carbon fiber arm with a tungsten carbide tip that is held in place by magnetic force. The contour drive is used to measure distances angles, and radii.

"The interchangeable probes allow us to get into anything from piston ring grooves to bores," says Don Jolley, a metrology engineer. "Pretty much anything we can put a stylus on, we can measure the surface finish. If it is a very ‘interesting' part, we have to make a stylus that has bends and curves to match the part, but as long as we can put the diamond onto the part and we can calibrate it, the surface finish can be measured.

"The surface finish unit has a range of 20 thousandths of vertical displacement. The contour unit has a working range of 2 inches. We can take a valve and run the probe down the stem and measure all the angles relative to the stem of the valve so we know exactly what the seat angles are on the valve," Jolley says. "We can check the manufacturer and our production to make sure it is built correctly for what the engine builder wants."

Checking for surface roughness can reveal problems in machining operations. If the machine tool is dull, or bearing problems occur in the rotating machinery, the testing tool will show patterns that allow JGR to go back to the manufacturer.

"We have initiated manufacturing improvement programs at our vendor's shops with this equipment," Bringle says. "They don't always know they are building parts that do not meet our needs. They are not necessarily bad parts, they just don't meet the requirements that we have for parts that go into our engines."

In one case, because of JGR measurements, a vendor has started an ISO 9000 audit in an attempt to get his processes under control.

Control is key, is whether it is Stewart charging around the tracks at triple-digit speeds or checking the smallest part of an engine.

"You have to understand," Bringle says, "that this building, and all the technology that is in it, can depend on one little part. A tiny valve can throw every bit of this away. If it goes bad, your car is out of the race. So many things can go wrong, and so many things that have to go right to win, and for us to win two championships in three years is mind boggling."

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