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Marking and Vision System Helps Verify the Provenance of NASCAR’s New Spec Motor

Wegner Columbia US Automotive In-Sight DataMan

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The North American Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) has adopted a new spec engine for its Camping World East and West series that uses many off-the-shelf parts to provide performance and durability at only about one-half the cost of custom-built engines. Each of the major parts in the new motor has a 2D Data Matrix code that can be read in seconds by a handheld scanner, greatly reducing the inspection time at the track. The marks need to be positioned in very specific, often difficult-to-mark locations on the parts so they can be inspected easily before and after the race to prevent the use of illegal parts that would increase the power of the engine. Wegner Motorsports, which provides spec kits and assembled engines, overcame this challenge with the Columbia Marking Tools 3-in-1 Marking System. The 3-in-1 Marking System produces 2D Data Matrix codes using dot peen, scribe, and laser marking methods so it can mark virtually any surface. A key to the success of the marking system used by Wegner is its integration of the Cognex In-Sight® 5100 vision system which instantly grades the mark to verify that it can be read during the racetrack inspection process which also utilizes Cognex DataMan® ID readers.

Development of new spec engine
NASCAR’s new engine is based on General Motor’s Gen-three small-block V-8; commonly referred to as the LS2. The engine costs only a fraction of a custom-built motor because it uses stock components including block and cylinder heads with the original bore and stroke dimensions. Race-specific components include JE-forged aluminum pistons, a Comp Cams cam and pushrods, a Holley 830-cfm four-barrel carburetor, Lunati crankshaft and rods, Edelbrock intake, a custom Stewart Components water pump, and Del West titanium valves. The engine produces 520 foot-pounds of torque and 625 horsepower at a maximum of 8,000 rpm. Wegner adopted a unique tagging system that provides positive identification for each component on the engine to prevent cheating. The 2D Data Matrix code has a series of dots arranged in a square that is very difficult to reproduce or counterfeit. It also includes the type of component, manufacturer, date of sale, and serial number.

Wegner faced a difficult challenge in producing the 2D Data Matrix codes on certain engine components such as the crankshafts, connecting rods, pistons, blocks, cylinder heads, intake, and exhaust manifolds and fuel pumps. These parts are made from a range of different tough materials including cast iron and hardened 4140 steel with a wide range of surface treatments such as nitriding and anodizing. What makes these parts particularly difficult to mark is that the location of the mark is often determined by the need to make it accessible for these inspections. NASCAR inspectors use a Cognex wireless handheld DataMan 7000 series scanner to inspect the engines both before and after the race to ensure that only legal parts are used.

Meeting the marking challenge
While at a racing show, Wegner managers saw the Columbia Marking Tools 3-in-1 Marking System which can perform all three of the major marking methods, dot peen, scribe, and laser marking. This machine includes a peen/scribe marking unit that uses an impact stylus for peen marking or a diamond tip for the quiet scribe marking of text or graphics into hard or soft surfaces producing fully formed lines and curves. The marking force can be actuated either electrically or by air. Switching from dot peen to scribe marking can be performed by merely flipping a switch and changing the stylus. Also available is a multi-faceted diamond tool for extended tool life. The laser-marking unit utilizes a compact, low-cost 50-watt adjustable diode laser with variable power from 0 to 50 watts. The laser module takes less than five minutes to retrofit to the DPS unit. The various marking units are mounted to a x-y slide that is driven by precision linear ballscrews.

When scribing or laser marking the parts, Columbia’s 3-in-1 Marking Systems displace material in a way that leaves specifically recessed areas formed of grooves and surrounded by ridges of displaced material that look like round indentations. These grooves and ridges form a very reflective multifaceted data cell with a very high contrast between the grooves and the inscribed or laser marked surface. A vision system can easily distinguish the grooves, evening the presence of extraneous marks or deposits. Columbia calls the marks produced by this method Square Dots. They can be produced at very high speeds with Grade A Readability, which is equivalent to 1200 reads per second with no variations. The Columbia model DPS-LR-150 machine used by Wegner has a 4-inch by 6-inch marking windows. The company uses a rotator attachment that provides the ability to mark the periphery of round parts.

Verifying the integrity of each Data Matrix code
A readable 2D Data Matrix code is critical to the integrity of these engines. If the Data Matrix code cannot be read during the pre-race inspection, there is a chance that the car will not be allowed to race. If it cannot be read in the post-race inspection, the results of the race will be in doubt. To ensure the readability of each part, every 2D Data Matrix code must be scanned right after it was generated in order to verify its readability. “To meet this requirement, we integrated a Cognex In-Sight 5100 vision system into our marking machine,” said Andy Ruzzin, Vice President of Sales for Columbia Marking Tools. “There are a number of vision companies but we always recommend Cognex vision systems because they have the best technology for reading 2D Data Matrix codes. NASCAR made the same decision by selecting Cognex handheld scanners for reading spec engine Data Matrix codes. Cognex’s In-Sight Explorer software also provides more options for reading a 2D Data Matrix code and makes it easier to develop a vision application.”

The In-Sight 5100 vision system acquires up to 60 full frames per second with 8-bit images. The In-Sight 5100 has a die-cast aluminum housing and sealed industrial M12 connectors that eliminate the need for additional enclosure hardware. It is rated for shock and vibration to IEC specifications. When used with the included lens cover, the sensor achieves an IP67 (NEMA 6) rating for dust and wash-down protection on the factory floor. Columbia Marking Tools used the In-Sight Software Development Kit to develop a user interface with a simple point and click setup. The In-Sight SDK allows developers to seamlessly integrate In-Sight images, graphics, and data into custom programs exposing only the functionality required for end users to configure In-Sight and monitor its operation, while preserving the look and feel of the custom interface. With the In-Sight SDK, software developers have the flexibility to use COM/ActiveX programming environments or the new Microsoft® .NET languages such as Visual Basic® or C#.

Performance has exceeded expectations
“The new marking machine and vision system has worked beautifully,” said Dan Timm, General Manager of Wegner Motorsports. “We got the marking machine up and running within four hours of unloading it off the truck. Having three different marking options makes it possible to produce a readable mark on the most difficult applications. We find that we use the scribe method on the majority of our parts, the dot peen method on very hard parts, and laser marking on a few specialized applications such as marking valves. The Cognex In-Sight vision systems built into the marking system reliably grade the 2D Data Matrix code mark, which ensures that they can be read in the race environment. I was amazed that the vision system could read the mark with only simple LED lighting and without special shrouding. Later, when we are putting the parts together into kits, we scan the parts again using the Cognex DataMan wireless handheld scanner that is the same model used by the NASCAR inspectors. This tells us exactly which part has gone into which kit which makes it possible later to trace its history if necessary.”

NASCAR has made the use of the new spec engine optional in order to avoid making existing inventory obsolete. Last season, Wegner’s spec engine was in about half the cars racing in the Camping World East and West series. For example, Matt Kobyluck used a spec engine in his Mohegan Sun Resort Chevrolet while winning the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown. Spec engines claimed four of the top 10 positions in this event. Kobyluck said of the spec engine: “It really fits my driving style well. The transition in the throttle is smooth all the way through.” At a cost of about $25,000 and life of 1,500 miles, the new spec engines reduce power plant costs by about 75%. “They cost only about half as much as a built engine and last twice as long,” Timm said. “The reduction in engine cost is making it possible for a lot of new teams to enter this series.”

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