Emerging Technologies

Innovative tools of the trade

By Drew Harnish

Quality at the tip of the surface

Imagine you must clean and prepare the surface around 2,000 holes on an aircraft skin before installing a nut plate on each hole. To ensure a quality bond, the area around each hole must be stripped down to bare metal and free of any residue that might cause the nut plate to lose adhesion.

Sounds simple enough, but what if 2 percent of the nut plates fail after the adhesive cures? That's 40 holes that need to be re-cleaned, 40 nut plates re-installed, and additional wait time for the adhesive to cure. Now take that 2 percent across the entire assembly process and the number of airplanes built each year.

That rework and quality cost might be worth ditching a manual cleaning process. Adapt Laser Systems offers a portfolio of lasers, from portable backpack systems to powerful hand-held lasers, designed specifically to remove contaminants, coatings or individual paint layers without damaging the substrate's surface.

Weighing 25 pounds, Adapt's Lasersystem Backpack CL 20 features a 20-watt, diode-pumped laser source with adjustable beam and power settings and a hand-held laser optic with operating distance up to 10 inches. It's well-suited for gentle cleaning of small areas. For operations needing something with a bit more gusto, Adapt has a selection of midpower lasers from 150 to 600 watts, along with a high-powered 1,000-watt system for more intensive laser abrasion requirements.

Let's rewind back to the aircraft skin you've been assigned to clean and the current 2 percent failure rate. How do you know when the surface is clean enough to begin installing nut plates? What if another mechanic performing the same task had a failure rate of 4 percent? Whether laser cleaning is the best solution for your operations, it would seem apparent that some process control must be inserted to reduce the variability in defect rates.

Enter the Surface Analyst by Brighton Technologies Group Inc. The first hand-held solution of its kind, it can be used on various surfaces, including metals, composites, ceramics and even organic material. After analyzing the wetting properties of a surface, the tool provides a quantitative value directly correlated to the cleanliness and adhesive properties of that surface. This three-second analysis replaces inconsistent, subjective methods with quantifiable data to standardize measurements across various operations. It even features the ability to upload time-stamped data for statistical process control.

Unchecked process defects threaten customer retention, increased risk of warranty claims and a higher cost of rework. These products highlight a few ways to ensure quality is built into production operations. Choosing either a process that guarantees preparation of the surface or one that enables consistent measurement of surface cleanliness is a sure-fire way to increase product quality in operations that require a high degree of precision.

Drew Harnish is the assistant regional vice president of IIE's South Central Region and a member of IIE's Young Professionals group. He works for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. and is a Six Sigma black belt and associate ergonomics professional.