Wheel Genius: Racing to Improve Data Collection

Thanks to a new image-based scanner, bar-code reader errors no longer tread on Champion Tire and Wheel’s productivity.

Champion Tire and Wheel fills a unique niche in the auto racing industry. The company, based outside Charlotte, N.C., provides "wheel service"—which entails transporting wheels to and from racetracks—for nearly all the NASCAR teams. With each team using up to 60 wheels per car for each race, Champion typically moves 1,000 wheels daily through its automated facility. Bar-code reader errors were slowing the pace, until a new image-based scanner solution helped Champion get back up to speed.

"Carrying wheels is a major source of wear-and-tear on the teams’ race haulers," says Todd Carpenter, general manager at Champion. "Also, if teams manage their own wheels, they need space to store the equipment when they aren’t racing, and they have to handle tire mounting and dismounting. It’s easier to outsource these tasks so they can focus on racing."

In addition to transporting bare wheels to the racetracks, where Goodyear mounts the tires, Champion hauls the mounted assemblies back to Charlotte, where it dismounts the used tires and sends them to recycling. Then workers clean and restock the wheels so they are ready to ship to the next racetrack.

Rolling On Through

Each team that contracts with Champion owns its wheels—typically about 260 wheels per team, consisting of both single- and double-stem versions of the 15-inch steel wheels NASCAR regulations dictate. Champion paints each team’s identification mark on the wheels, and tracks them in its automated system. Teams can log into the system to check the status of their wheels, and identify which ones are going to which races.

In all, Champion houses approximately 20,000 wheels in its secure, climate-controlled facility. The company built its business on understanding race teams’ needs, and by using the principals’ engineering background to automate handling the wheels in a way that ensures optimal performance.

For example, rather than stacking or bouncing the wheels, Champion moves them through its facility on a conveyor system, which is less likely to cause damage. In addition, the company applies bar codes to each wheel, then scans it every time it moves in and out of the facility, creating a complete history of that wheel. And as each wheel comes back from a race, it undergoes a thorough inspection process.

This inspection process prevents damaged wheels from being returned to stock. "If a wheel doesn’t meet specifications, our bar-code systems won’t allow the racing team that owns it to check it out of the facility," Carpenter explains.

In the past, Champion read the wheels’ bar codes by positioning a scanner on the conveyor line at the point where workers had dismounted the tires and washed the wheels, but just before the wheels reached the inspection station. The scanner had an 80-percent read rate.

When the scanner couldn’t read a bar code, the wheel was kicked over to an inspection line for manual reading with a scan gun. Because Champion handles nearly 1,000 wheels daily, workers had to read 200 wheels manually each day.

Once More Through the Line

Typically, operators would run the problem wheels through the line repeatedly to try to get a scanner reading. If that was unsuccessful, workers would have to use a scan gun to manually read those codes. This process took an extra 20 to 30 minutes per day, and the scan gun data wasn’t entered into the system. Also, those wheels missed part of the inspection process.

A demonstration at a trade show convinced Carpenter to replace the laser scanner with an image-based bar-code reader, which more effectively captures hard-to-read bar codes.

Image-based readers capture an image, then use a series of algorithms to process it and make it easier to read. One algorithm searches the entire image for the code, and identifies its position and orientation. Other algorithms handle degradations in code quality.

Champion installed a DataMan 302L image-based bar-code reader from machine vision systems manufacturer Cognex, based in Natick, Mass. The DataMan 302L is part of the Cognex DataMan 300 series, developed to handle the most difficult-to-read codes. The 302L is a fixed-mount device with a high-resolution sensor for reading very small codes in a large field of view, as well as codes placed on small components.

In addition, the 302L delivers maximum depth-of-field flexibility through its use of a liquid lens module. The key advantage of the liquid lens is that it keeps the code in focus even when the distance from the camera to the code is changing, which happens because the bar codes can be located anywhere on the wheels.

Other advantages of the liquid lens are its ruggedness—it includes no moving parts—fast response times, good optical quality, low power consumption, and compact size.

Champion Takes a Victory Lap

Today, instead of 200 wheels per day being kicked out to the inspection line, only 30 need special handling.

"We replace the labels now if the DataMan can’t read them," Carpenter notes. That saves time and eliminates the hassle of trying multiple times to get the kicked-out wheels to go through the scanner.

More importantly, using the DataMan ensures that all wheels are entered into Champion’s system when they return from a race, and every wheel receives a full inspection.

"Our company’s focus is on giving race teams confidence that their wheels are handled appropriately and inspected thoroughly so they perform optimally on the track," concludes Carpenter. "The DataMan reader plays an important role in enabling us to do that."

The efficiency and accuracy gains Champion achieved with the Cognex scanner makes the solution a wheel winner.


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