Wouldn't it be great if you could ask the fasteners and screws in a new car whether they're installed correctly? It could happen in the factory of the future.
The technology already is taking test flights in the airline industry, keeping cabinet doors closed on airliners. If its initial flights are good, the next destination could be the auto factory.
The fasteners use shape-changing materials to clamp a receiver piece onto a shaft. On the planes, one wave and a click of a specially coded magnetic wand make the fasteners hold doors shut with nut-and-bolt-like firmness. With a reverse wave, the fasteners let go so that the doors can be opened.
The Textron-supplied fasteners, brand-named Intevia, aren't just reversible. They also carry electronics and computer chips that can be programmed to do things such as keeping a record of when and by whom they were tightened and released, says K.L. Seshasai, executive vice president for technology at Textron Fastening Systems Inc. in Troy, Mich.
A gripping story
The fasteners also can form a self-reporting computer network, keeping track of their tightness and monitoring conditions such as temperature or vibration in the component to which they are attached.
Seshasai said the fasteners are expected to make a jump to auto factories in a few years, replacing the nuts, bolts and specialty fasteners that now require crews of expert assemblers.
The fasteners need no physical installation contact - no wrench or screwdriver or robot arm to spin them into place - so they can be located in blind spots deep within a component.
A typical use would be holding an instrument panel in place. Another might be replacement of the cable and latch assemblies that release the fuel door. A single Intevia fastener, able to cycle at a command from the vehicle key fob, could eliminate the space-taking system used today.
"It's not a five cent fastener we are replacing with Intevia; we can replace maybe a $50 system with an Intevia system," Seshasai said.
For smart fasteners to break into the auto industry, they'll have to outperform and also save more money than an automaker's purchasing department can squeeze out of nut-and-bolt sellers.
That may be tough over the short term because new technology for those older fasteners is appearing on the market.
An example is an ultrasonic wrench developed by Sayad Nassar, founding director of the Fastener and Joining Research Institute at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., in cooperation with DaimlerChrysler. Sending ultrasound waves through a bolt during installation, the wrench can tighten the bolt automatically to the exact degree needed, detecting cross-threading or improper assembly at the same time.
Such advances may challenge Textron's plans for Intevia, but Seshasai is undisturbed by the challenges.
However, because of this competition, the odds still are about 50-50 that smart fasteners will be adopted in the factories of the future.
Ordinary fasteners may not be very expensive, Seshasai acknowledges, with prices ranging from less than a nickel to more than 50 cents. But their real expense is the working time to install them, quality checking to make sure installation was done correctly and teardown time if there's an error.
The Intevia fasteners are a disruptive technology - they don't simply stand in for ordinary fasteners. Instead, they offer new thinking in design and production methods. In a factory, the fasteners could allow continuous line flow because there's no time-consuming tightening at each workstation.
The fasteners also might eliminate special lighting and access for assembly points deep within the vehicle. Parts could be designed without needing to leave access for inserting or removing screws or nuts, and assembly lines could be stripped of a lot of human and robotic workstations.
Intevia fasteners also could check with each other to prevent quality problems - they could refuse to clamp if they detect a missing or misplaced component.
Tim Moran is a Detroit-area freelance writer. You may e-mail him at [email protected]