CT scanner used by Ford. (Ford)
Even though the world can seem like it's already gone completely digital, we're still fascinated by flashy computer technology, especially when it creates colorful, rotating, sometimes kaleidoscopic graphics on a screen -- and when it allows us to perform tasks that once seemed straight out of "Star Trek."

These days, the type of system used to such striking visual effect by forensic crime investigators -- both on TV and in real life -- is at use at Ford Motor Company's Central Laboratory in Dearborn. There, analysts use it to improve the quality of car parts, meaning fewer problems for the vehicle owner, which translates to fewer trips to the dealer for repairs.

The digital device in question is a computed tomography scanner (often described as a CAT or CT scanner) that is used by Ford's own team of "forensic investigators." The CAT scanner is a smaller version of the type used by hospitals. In this case, however, instead of solving a crime or helping to diagnose an illness, the scanners are used to detect tiny imperfections in parts like gears, latches, welds, nuts, bolts, fasteners and sensors -- before they are assembled into a finished vehicle.

Using the powerful tabletop-sized Skyscan Micro-CT scanner, Ford analysts are able to see flaws as small as 17 microns, which is less than the size of a particle of beach sand. Then, when the reason for the deficiency in the part has been uncovered, that information is sent on to a materials engineering group which can redesign the part, or change the way it is manufactured.

In the past, lab development analysts like Ford's Vlad Beltran would spend hours, days or even weeks analyzing an individual part, such as a bolt, one layer at a time, until a small scratch or bump was discovered. "We'd often take it apart by hand, and spend hours sanding it, and polishing it, then examining it under a microscope, and then take a picture of it, and repeating this process several times," says Beltran. "And even after all that, it was possible that we could miss a tiny defect and not even know it."

Now, the CT scanner allows Beltran and his fellow development analysts to employ 3D virtual imaging to pinpoint a flaw, even flaws that are inside the part, like an air pocket or scratch that in some cases might be no bigger than a dust particle.

"The CT scanner is an essential tool to help us study why parts aren't performing at their optimum level," said Beltran. "It can be used for any number of things: Troubleshooting for supplier parts, new parts that engineers are testing, or parts from vehicles undergoing durability testing."

The advanced Skyscan, like the larger CT scanners used in hospitals or crime investigations, enables analysts to take an X-ray of the part and then use the scanner's software to create a "virtual" reconstruction of the part on a computer screen. The virtual image of the part can be rotated, so that it can be viewed horizontally and vertically in "digitized slices." So, problems not visible to the naked eye can be viewed on the computer. Then, analysts use the software to create a three-dimensional video from the data to help them hone in on the source of the problem.

"When we're investigating a problem part, it really does start out as a mystery," says Beltran. "We know it is failing, but we don't know how or why it is failing. Was the part being misused somehow, or is the flaw due to the process used by the supplier? But there is a 'trail of evidence,' so to speak, to help us find out the source. So, in a sense, a failed part really is like our 'crime scene.' And it remains a mystery until we do the scanning, and digitizing, and figure how it all started."

And with the scanner, many of these mysteries can be solved within a few hours.

"Plus, before, we'd often have to cut into the part to find the problem -- essentially destroying the part -- which made it useless. Now, with the scanner, we can examine it without destroying it, and the part can still be used in more durability testing."

The bottom line, says Beltran, is that "we want the customer to be happy with product. We don't want them to have to go to dealer and get it replaced. And the quicker we know what's wrong, in advance, before it gets out there in the customer's hands, the less it costs us, in terms of warranty costs. And it's better for us in terms of the reputation of our vehicles."

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