Foreign cars? Yes. Foreign material in auto parts? No thanks.

December 04, 2009

Learning how to get down to the micro level is helping Toyota QC analysts identify and correct problems before they get to the assembly line.

Automotive manufacturing consists of a complex supply chain in which many suppliers from all over the globe supply parts to OEMs. This means there are many opportunities for foreign material—stuff that’s not supposed to be in the parts—to be introduced into the process. It’s typically the job of QC to isolate the source of any defects. As part of its kaizen philosophy, Toyota sends its QC analysts for further education to fine-tune their knowledge of sophisticated microanalytical techniques and to be trained on a variety of advanced instruments that probe materials on a microscopic scale.

Ryan Britton, Toyota Quality Control Analyst specializing in defect and failure analysis at Toyota’s corporate headquarters, attended a scanning electron microscopy (SEM) course at the College of Microscopy (Westmont, IL). In fact, he took three courses at the college, including micro sample preparation, micro FTIR, and scanning electron microscopy.

“I use the training I received at the College of Microscopy to analyze defects and provide line support for all the Toyota plants in North America,” says Britton. “The plants will send me their defect samples, and my job is to determine the cause. I deal with all types of materials, including paints and plastics in various components such as bumpers and other components.”

Britton says that being able to drill down and get to the microscopic level in his analysis using SEM has been extremely beneficial to the quality of the vehicles that Toyota produces. In one recent case, Britton was trying to determine the cause of tiny bumps that appeared on some bumpers after paint was applied. “The courses I took at the College of Microscopy have helped increase the analytical capability I have at the micro level, rather than just providing a macro view or bigger-picture analysis,” he explains. “I’m able to do a much more focused analysis, as in the case of the bumper problem that I was dealing with when I was taking the SEM course.”

By using SEM while at the course, Britton was able to determine that the tiny bumps were a result of embedded contaminants caused by an additive in the resin. “The resin suppliers have a lot of analyzing capability in-house, but you don’t find it across the board with some of the plastics processors,” says Britton. “Now that I’ve acquired this capability—the ability to get to the details—we’re achieving better results with the materials Toyota uses in its manufacturing.”

As part of the College’s course, students are encouraged to bring their own samples for the hands-on portion of the class, says Charles Zona, dean. “The students who come to us work on a variety of problems and will bring in actual samples to work on as part of the course,” says Zona. “They spend 50% of the class time hands-on with the SEM instrument itself.
“One of the key interests in these courses,” he adds, “is that our instructors have several decades on the analytical service area and are on the front line every day solving materials problems. In this way, the students gain hands-on analytical experience from people who do this type of work on a daily basis.”

In addition to helping Toyota, Britton adds that his education through the college and the expertise he’s acquired from taking classes there gives him the ability to also help out some of Toyota’s Tier One suppliers either by doing the testing on problems with certain paints or polymers or by confirming what they’re seeing.

A microgram of prevention
Zona explains that most courses offered at the college are in great demand and all fill up quickly. “We offer courses year-round on a variety of topics, but our core courses are SEM, FTIR microscopy, and polarized light microscopy (PLM). Then we build on these with additional concentration on contaminant identification in polymers/plastics, white powder identification, and many others for other types of applications,” Zona says. “We have a wide variety of courses—35 altogether—because we have a wide variety of students who encompass a variety of disciplines.”

The College of Microscopy is just about ready to announce its 2010 schedule. Typically each course has 10-15 attendees, with final class size dependent on providing each student with a maximum amount of hands-on time with the instruments. Zona notes that the October 2009 SEM course sold out, and the March 2010 course was almost full at press time. To accommodate the demand in this analytical area, the college is adding two more classes for July 2010. Although the college offers one- or two-day courses to meet demand, most typically run to five days, Monday-Friday.

With quality being such a critical issue in the production of a final product, the ability for OEMs to analyze materials such as plastics and paints to this micro level is a key factor in building a better product. “In the case of the automotive industry, you simply cannot sell a car with bumps in the paint, so you have to track down the source of the defect and then eliminate the source to prevent the contaminant from ruining the parts being assembled into the vehicle,” says Zona. “If a defect is observed during production, these cars must be pulled off the line to fix the problem, or the assembly line may have to be shut down until they find the source of the defects, which can be very costly.”

It can be challenging to find and eliminate the source of many defects without the use of microscopy, primarily because many causes of defects cannot be identified with the naked eye.

Britton says that his knowledge of microscopy gained at the College of Microscopy has greatly improved his overall abilities. “I think the quality of the output is better determined at the micro level, which gives us more definitive results,” he says. “Before, we were not able to make definitive determinations, but now we can isolate the defects [particles] better, get more definitive answers to avoid line-down situations and high-defect counts, and solve problems much faster.

“In the past,” he continues, “not being able to completely identify the root cause of a defect hindered our work because the same problem would pop back up again, even after we thought we had found the cause. Using the light microscope and the SEM to examine problems on a microscopic level helps us find the root cause and eliminate the source of the problem.”


Classes offered at the College of Microscopy

Micro Sample Preparation: This was the first of the three courses that Britton completed and concentrates on the location, isolation, and mounting of defects and/or contaminants in polymers, paints, and coatings. “We have had people from a variety of industries such as paint companies and plastics companies taking these courses,” explains Zona. “They can isolate the defects that they find in the plastic or paint at their facility and mount them for analysis by a number of ultramicroanalytical approaches to solve their materials problems. For example, in Britton’s case, he used the SEM to examine and analyze his defects. He was interested in size, shape, and identifying features of the contaminants, along with the elemental composition of the defect in the plastic bumpers. The course really emphasizes sample preparation because this is the first step to getting good and meaningful analytical results.”

Micro FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared): This course provides both lecture and hands-on experience using the Micro-FTIR source coupled to a microscope, which provides the organic chemistry of the sample being analyzed, putting a beam on an instrument—an FTIR unit coupled to a microscope—which then also gives the organic chemistry of the sample being analyzed. “You can go from particle to particle gathering data that can help determine the contaminant’s identity,” says Zona.

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM): “The SEM course provides the student with the technical know-how of operating the SEM as well as how to gather not only high-magnification images and surface features, but also elemental data on inorganic materials,” explains Zona.Clare Goldsberry

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