3-D laser scanning bolsters ABB’s shock-protecting circuit breakers

2014-07-07 - An ABB Low Voltage Products quality control team in Italy worked with Europe’s largest university on a 3-D laser scanning system for circuit breaker components. It’s helping accelerate improvements to devices that protect people and buildings from electrical shock and fire.

Residual current devices (RCDs) and miniature circuit breakers (MCDs) made and designed in ABB’s Santa Palomba and Vittuone production facilities detect earth leakage currents, short circuits and overloads, instantly interrupting a circuit before fire or injury occur.

The LBU Quality Control team. From left: Mauro Pappalardo, Luca Tito, Carlo Catanzaro and David Boron
But ABB engineers have long faced the challenge of measuring whether these breakers’ injection-molded components - as well as the molds in which these components are made - conform to strict tolerances. Using conventional 2-D optical instruments is time-consuming and makes new product and application introduction slower than business would like.

Now, the Quality Control team from ABB Italia's LBU Enclosures and DIN-rail products is deploying 3-D laser scanners to boost accuracy of measurements and cut inspection time by up to 30 percent. ABB employees say they can spend less time testing - and more time developing innovative products for new customers and new markets.

Saving time, boosting innovation

“We are saving time on the approval of new molds and tools,” said Luca Tito, supply quality control manager at the Santa Palomba factory. “We can innovate products and processes. And being more efficient means being more sustainable.”

Most people probably take circuit breakers in their homes or offices for granted.

Still, anybody who has ever had an electrical shock - or seen the consequences of a tragic house or building fire - can appreciate the technology that goes inside these devices. It’s come a long way since Brown, Boveri & Cie., one of ABB’s forerunner companies, patented the modern circuit breaker in 1924.

Tito’s Italian team continues to make improvements. In particular, he said, it’s critical the injection-molded parts that make up 70 percent of a circuit breaker conform to exacting specifications that ensure the unit works properly.

These parts are complex, with extremely tight tolerance margins. They’re prone to shrinkage when they emerge from the molds, too. What’s more, the molds themselves are complicated, with multiple cavities that don’t lend themselves to easy inspection, especially with conventional 2-D measurement technology.

‘Long and laborious dimensional checking’

“It's easy to understand how long and laborious dimensional checking of the components can be,” Tito said.

Starting in 2012, ABB began working closely with researchers at Sapienza University of Rome’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering to select a 3-D laser scanning system. Their aim: Create a virtual image of components to compare against their computer model, to ensure they match up.

From the components being measured, ABB quality control engineers do “reverse engineering” to assess reliability of the molds in which the parts are made.

“It represents an interesting challenge, developing an industrial application able to mix together different competences like reverse engineering techniques, mechanical tolerance protocol, information technology and expert knowledge derived from ABB experience,” said F. Campana, a Sapienza researcher who worked with ABB.

Merely selecting the right 3-D scanning system was just half the challenge.

Once that was done, ABB technicians worked to improve the data acquisition method as well as automate programming of optimal 3-D trajectories to extract measurements and compare them with the design tolerances.

Months of hard work is starting to pay off, Tito said.

Reduce time to market, improve quality checks

A pilot project running since January in Santa Palomba's Quality Control laboratory demonstrates how the system can improve ABB’s ability to inspect individual components and more quickly win approval for new injection molds.

Additionally, it can be used troubleshoot problems that may emerge on production lines by testing whether existing molds are producing parts within the tolerances demanded.

The pilot will soon be expanded to the Vittuone Quality Control laboratory, Tito said.

“The target is to reduce the time to market and to improve the efficiency of quality checks,” he said, adding these new 3-D laser scanners will mean workers can spend less time duplicating checks on different cavities of same mold – and more time helping win new customers and markets for ABB breakers.

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