ECR Engines, a division of Richard Childress Racing, is in the business of extracting maximum performance from conventional, push-rod 5.87 Liter V8 engines for NASCAR competition. The company does this by relentlessly engineering parts to find every possible bit of incremental performance and through systematic quality inspection of all failure prone parts. ZEISS solutions are critical to the company’s daily engineering and quality assurance work.

“We build over 650 high performance engines a year for Richard Childress Racing, JTG Daugherty Racing, Germain Racing, and others,” says Jim Suth, quality manager for ECR Engines, a wholly owned subsidiary of Richard Childress Racing. “We cannot afford a single avoidable failure of any part. One defective component could lead to failure on the track, impacting both championship standing and partnerships, and that isn’t acceptable. To achieve that level of reliability we’ve gone from random sampling to 100% inspection of critical components. That applies both to parts we purchase and those we manufacture. Some of our tightest tolerances are 0.0002 inch (2/10,000). The required gage tolerance rule according to the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) must allow for 0.00002 inch (2/100,000) gage resolution discrimination. That is an order of magnitude smaller than the part tolerance or 150 times smaller than the thickness of an average human hair.”

ECR has expanded metrology and microscopy capacity to keep up with the increased number of tightly toleranced parts being inspected. Over the last several years the company has replaced equipment from other vendors with ZEISS systems and is now using ZEISS equipment exclusively. Using ZEISS systems has significantly improved gage R&R and the accuracy of measurement for tighter tolerance components like pistons, connecting rods, and valves.

ECR has a range of ZEISS metrology systems including:

  • O-SELECT Digital Measuring Projector
  • RONDCOM NEX CNC Roundness System
  • SURCOM NEX CNC Surface Finish and Form System

Critical application cases for O-INSPECT CMM- RONDCOM - SURCOM include:

  • Piston and valve finish and form measurements (RONDCOM / SURCOM)
  • Valve, piston, connecting rod optical and tactile dimensional measurements (O-INSPECT 543)
  • Crankshaft surface finish, geometry/gear profiles (SURCOM)

In addition to measurement machines for part inspection, ECR has also added ZEISS microscopy systems. ECR wanted the capability to analyze parts and perform research in-house instead of outsourcing. “If we had an engine failure attributable to a valve spring for example—a common source of problems in NASCAR racing—microscopy and microanalysis of the failed part would allow us to understand the problem and make improvements with 100% confidence,” says Suth. “Defects as small as five to 10 microns have been causes of stress concentration and premature fatigue failure and thus we need nanometer resolution to be able to detect such defects. Sending a failed component to an independent laboratory can mean a delay of a week or two in getting the analysis we need to fix a problem; meanwhile we don’t stop racing. With the equipment in-house we can correct certain problems in 24 hours instead of weeks.” ZEISS microscopy systems at ECR include:

  • EVO MA25 Scanning Electron Microscope
  • Axio Observer 7M Inverted Metallographic Microscope
  • SteREO Discovery V20 Stereo Microscope
  • Smartzoom 5 Digital Microscope
  • Smartproof 5 Confocal Microscope

Critical application cases for EVO, Axio, V20 and Smartzoom include:

  • Routine failure analysis of various engine components from testing and track use, e.g. springs, bolts, valves. (EVO-V20-SZ5-Axio)
  • New material and coating characterization for critical engine applications/ particle analysis, e.g. alloy cleanliness, dry-film lubricants, hard thin film coatings (EVO-Axio)
  • Study of engine component wear/ particle analysis, e.g. piston skirt wear, bearing wear, valve seat wear, oil pump wear. (EVO, SZ5, V20)
  • New component visual inspection, defect analysis, e.g. contamination, corrosion pitting, scratches, mechanical damage. (V20-SZ5)
  • Correlative microscopy analyzing macro interests on either V20 or SZ5 and further analyzing those exact regions with automatic navigation on a micro level (SEM). (V20-SZ5-EVO)

Systems like O-SELECT and Smartproof bridge the metrology and microscopy worlds. Their critical application cases include:

  • Quick repetitive optical inspection of various components, e.g. rocker arm geometry, piston groove measurement, valve locks, springs, clips (O-SELECT)
  • Noncontact 3D surface finish characterization of softer substrates, defects analysis, porosity analysis, e.g. bearings, coating defects, coating/casting porosity. Laser mark depth max depth verification. (Smartproof)

“We had been using equipment from multiple vendors, but found that ZEISS was the one that delivered the technology and accuracy we need,” says Suth. “Equipment reliability is equally important to us. Having a machine out of service can be very costly. If inspection falls behind due to equipment downtime it leads to other departments being rushed when the faulty machine gets back into service. And while we always work quickly, being rushed can impact quality. The alternative is to buy redundant equipment to be able to continue inspection when something breaks down or isn’t working, and that can be costly as well. We haven’t had any of those kinds of problems since standardizing on ZEISS, but we looked very closely at the company’s support operations to make sure that we’d get support quickly if anything did happen.”

Implementing new ZEISS equipment and upgrading existing systems at ECR went very smoothly. Once machines were installed and calibrated, verification, which can sometimes take weeks, was completed within days. In some cases verification was complete within hours. “Verification gives us the confidence we need in metrology results and lets us include new systems into our quality planning right away,” says Suth.

“Some of the systems we used before standardizing on ZEISS were manual, introducing variability based on the operator and fixturing,” says Suth. “That’s no longer an issue for us, and ZEISS’s roundness and surface finish systems are among the most accurate as well. Their microscopy technologies are some of the most advanced in the industry, and their CALYPSO software has long been an industry standard.”

“Our expectations in moving to an all-ZEISS operation were high, and our system performance results have been great. We have not experienced one lost day, which means that the departments we serve don’t have to be rushed. Proper inspection means we can do our very best work, put top-performing $80,000 engines on the track every weekend. We don’t have to worry about failures due to human error, and we haven’t experienced machine downtime.”

“In racing it always makes sense to have backup systems when we can, whether on the racetrack or at the shop, and with our lean production cycle we can’t afford to have equipment out of production. But with ZEISS systems we can keep things on schedule without having to deploy redundant metrology equipment. Since installing the new systems we have decreased our programming time and increased our throughput while generating more SPC data than ever before. We are applying that data to reduce variation in our components, making process improvements using the ZEISS PiWeb graphical reporting system. It’s very customizable and provides a visible way to understand what the software is telling us over multiple part runs. It’s far more effective than other software we’ve used.”

“For the future we anticipate continuing to increase our CMM capacity. The ZEISS measurement machines we use offer some of the most versatility per dollar spent. They can handle anything from an engine block to a valve, which some other systems we’ve used haven’t been able to do. That’s important because an engine uses so many different parts of different sizes and shapes.”

“ZEISS CALYPSO makes it easy to program systems for different kinds of parts and program faster than we’ve been ever able to with other systems. That kind of speed is critical for the kind of work we do. And, of course, the measurements that help us produce winning engines are extremely accurate. Repeatability of measurement is great, and the quality of the machines is better than what we used before. Our success with our current ZEISS CMMs and microscopes will help justify the purchase of additional ZEISS equipment as our needs continue to grow.”