CORNELIUS, N.C.Keeping track of which wheels go to which NASCAR team at which track can be a mind-boggling endeavor.
Take it from Champion Tire & Wheel Inc., which operates an automated facility that moves roughly 1,000 race car wheels a day from a truck trailer back into storage after each race 37 weeks or so during the year.
To accomplish that task, the racing-based dealershipwhich hails from Cornelius, about 15 minutes north of Charlotte, N.C., in NASCAR countryuses a special system where each wheel bearing a barcode moves along a conveyor line through a variety of inspection stations before it is stored. In the past, when a laser scanner was used to read barcodes, about 200 wheels were kicked out to a manual inspection line each day because their barcodes could not be read, according to Champion.
Operators then captured those barcodes manually, though the data were not entered into the computer system tracking wheel use. Also, those wheels missed one of the inspection stations.
The company recently replaced its old laser scanner system with the DataMan 302L image-based barcode reader from Natick, Mass.-based Cognex Corp. The dealership said that unit is much better at handling deg-radations in barcode quality. The DataMan's read rate at Champion is 97 percent. Barcodes that can't be read have been damaged and are replaced. The new reader has eliminated the time that was spent manually capturing barcodes, Champion said, and ensures that all wheels go through all inspection stations and get tracked by the company's computer system.
Champion fills a unique niche in the world of auto racing. The company provides what is called wheel service for nearly all NASCAR teamsmeaning Champion trans--ports the teams' wheels to and from the racetracks so that they don't have to.
The company said it serves the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races throughout the season, providing specialized services and transport of tires and wheels as well as equipment and supplies for teams competing in races across the country.
The Cognex reader does a much better job of identifying and reading the barcodes, said Todd Carpenter, Champion's general manager. It helps us ensure that every wheel we send to a race delivers the performance the teams expect.
Carrying wheels is a major source of wear-and-tear on the teams' race haulers, said Mr. Carpenter, who explained that NASCAR teams use about 60 wheels per car per race. Also, if the teams handle their own wheels, they need space to store them when they aren't racingand they have to handle the tire mounting and dismounting.
It's clearly advantageous to have someone else take care of these things so they can focus on racing.
In addition to transporting bare wheels to the race tracks where the tires are mounted by Goodyearthe sole supplier of tires to NASCARChampion said it hauls the mounted assemblies back to Charlotte where the used tires are dismounted and sent for recycling. Then the wheels are cleaned, restocked, re-indexed and shipped to the next race track.
Each of the teams that contracts with Champion owns its own wheelstypically about 260 wheels per team, consisting of both single-stem and double-stem versions of the 15-inch steel wheels dictated by NASCAR regulations. Champion paints each team's ID on the wheels and tracks them in its computer system.
The teams can log in to Champion's system to see the status of their wheels and which ones are going to which races.
In all, Champion said it houses approximately 20,000 wheels in its secure, climate-controlled facility. It has a fleet of more than 30 semi-truck and trailer rigs that travel 60,000 miles per truck per year to haul wheels to and from the tracks.
According to Champion, the company became the dominant wheel service provider to NASCAR by building its business on an understanding of what race teams need, and by using Champion's principals' background in engineering to ensure that the company handles wheels in a way that ensures good performance.
We try and look at what we do from a crew chief's perspective and ask ourselves how we would want our wheels and tires handled if we were them, Mr. Carpenter said. Because we're engineers, we have automated our approach with the main objective being consistent and predictable wheel performance.
For example, rather than stacking them or bouncing the wheels, Champion moves them through its facility on a conveyor system because that is less likely to cause damage. In addition, every wheel that Champion handles is barcoded and scanned every time it moves in and out of its facility, creating a complete history of that wheel.
As each wheel comes back from a race, it undergoes a thorough inspection process that, according to the dealership, checks the roundness of the wheels and the lug holes as well as lateral and radial runout.
This inspection process ensures any damaged wheels are not returned to stock. If something should happen to cause a wheel to go out of spec, Mr. Carpenter said, our barcode systems won't allow for that wheel to ever be checked out of our facility.
In the past, Champion used a laser scanner to read the barcodes on wheels. The scanner was positioned on the conveyor line after the tires were dismounted and the wheels were washedjust before they reached the station that checks the lug holes. The scanner had an 80-percent read rate, in large part due to the heat and a duty cycle that caused the barcodes to wear out and become harder to read.
When the scanner couldn't read a barcode, the wheel was kicked over to an inspection line for manual reading with a scan gun. With the volume of wheels Champion handles at races, that would put a real crimp in production as the operators would then try to run those wheels through the line a number of times to see if they could get the scanner to read.
When that didn't work, someone had to use a scan gun to read the codes manually, adding an extra 20 to 30 minutes per day to the process. And the scan gun data didn't get entered into the computer system, Champion said, noting that those wheels also missed the lug hole check.
Mr. Carpenter said a demonstration at a trade show convinced the company to replace its laser scanner system with an image-based barcode reader to better capture hard-to-read barcodes.
Image-based readers capture an image and use a series of algorithms to process it and make it easier to read, according to Champion. An algorithm searches the entire image for the code and identifies the position and orientation of the code for easy reading. Other algorithms handle degradations in code quality.
Champion said it installed the DataMan 302L image-based barcode reader because it was developed to handle the most difficult-to-read codes. The unit is a fixed-mount device with a high resolution (1280x1024) sensor for reading very small codes in a large field of view as well as codes placed on small components.
In addition, the 302L delivers maximum depth-of-field flexibility through its use of a liquid lens module. Champion said the key advantage of that for the dealership is that it keeps the code in focus even when the distance from the camera to the code is changing, which happens because the barcodes can be located anywhere on the wheels.
Other advantages of the liquid lens are its ruggednessit has no moving partsfast response times, good optical quality, low power consumption and compact size.
Mr. Carpenter said that instead of 200 wheels per day being kicked out to the inspection line, only 30 need special handling now. The 3 percent of the barcodes that aren't read now are caused by codes that have been damaged too greatly to be read.
We replace the labels now if they can't be read by the DataMan, he said.
That saves time and eliminates the hassle of trying multiple times to get the kicked-out wheels to go through the scanner and, Mr. Carpenter noted, there's less frustration for the operators now.
More importantly, the use of the new barcode reader ensures all wheels are entered into Champion's computer system when they return from a race, and a lug hole inspection is performed on every wheel.
Our company's focus is on giving race teams the confidence that their wheels are handled appropriately and inspected thoroughly so that they perform optimally on the track, Mr. Carpenter added.