High-performance race teams push everything to the extreme. Drivers get every drop of power they can squeeze out of their cars; engineers shave every ounce of weight out of every component in the vehicle; and machinists fabricate complex parts from difficult materials facing critical deadline pressures.
“I’ll go in on Monday and they’ll ask for tooling advice on a part they need to make by Tuesday to get on the car and racing by the weekend,” says Steve Jodrie, Tungaloy America Inc.’s sales engineer who works with Team Penske, the legendary race team that has racked up 547 pole positions and 480 wins in its 52-year history.
Working with the race team is different from working with the typical machine shop, Jodrie says. Every machining center, coordinate measuring machine (CMM), and piece of metal fabrication equipment is new and state-of-the-art. And unlike some smaller shops that struggle to find talented machinists, Penske’s shop is full of veteran gearheads who want to work on the extreme challenges that racing offers.
“They’re not worried about billing a tool to an individual job or tracking every investment in technology. They’re focused on the engineering challenge at hand,” Jodrie says. “So, I never have to worry about the capabilities of their equipment or people. On the other hand, those capabilities mean they have much higher expectations on what we can deliver.”
As a partner to the racing team, Tungaloy offers expert advice and cutting tools to address the challenges Penske faces. Typically, that means improving the quality and durability of each component, and most importantly, getting them through the shop quickly.
Recently, team engineers asked for Jodrie’s advice on a series of aluminum suspension pieces they were milling with solid carbide tools. Penske tailors suspension parts to each race to tune each car’s performance to the characteristics of each track and expected weather conditions. So, team members must constantly fabricate two unique components for each car.
“I was able to show them an indexable tool to cut the part. It supported deeper depths of cut and higher speeds. On a 4-hour part, the new tool was able to get them down to just about 2 hours,” Jodrie says.
One of the most successful teams in the history of professional sports, cars owned and prepared by Team Penske have won more than 470 major races, more than 540 pole positions, and 32 championships across open-wheel, stock car, and sportscar racing. Throughout its 52-year history, it has earned 16 Indianapolis 500 victories, two Daytona 500 Championships, a Formula 1 win, and overall victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
This level of execution would be impossible without an employee base of more than 500 team members, massive engineering and manufacturing capabilities, and strategic support from Team Penske’s technical partners.
The race has already started
In his eighth season, Team Penske’s NASCAR Competition Director Travis Geisler is responsible for all facets of its championship-winning NASCAR racing programs and serves as liaison between crew chiefs and engineering departments. He generously rolled up the proverbial race shop doors to provide insight into a world many people will never get to see.
“It’s about seven weeks” to prep for a race, Geisler explains. “It’s kind of like building a house where you start with the foundation guys, and then you move on to each step, where it gets a little more detailed and a little more finished out.
“We start out with the guys in engineering setting the chassis spec and then you go build the chassis, that’s kind of your foundation. Then you put the body on… Then, about three weeks before the race, team guys will issue their build spec which is down to all the suspension parts, components and everything. About a week out from the event, the race teams get ahold of the car and execute their specific setup. It’s a workflow with all the different departments that repeats itself 38 times a year.”
This just scratches the surface of a technical process that would rival any aerospace company, the dedication and standards of the American military, and the winning heritage of the New York Yankees.
Grass roots rocket science
Big-time racing is big-time business. The name and corporate footprint of team owner Roger Penske reached a global scale decades ago, and as the most public facing element of Penske Corp., the team’s performance puts millions of dollars on the line every week.
Which explains the remarkable resources and technology Team Penske uses to gain a winning edge.
It takes honed skill and tenured hands to build a racecar. But take a close look into the fabrication shop, and you’ll notice that as one team member is using a traditional English wheel to shape a piece of sheet metal, another is using GPS measuring equipment to test the position of a fender down to a thousandth of an inch.
In the machine shop you’ll find a machinist operating a cutting wheel or lathe in one area, and another area filled with multi-axis automated CNC machines the size of school buses. Metrology systems, laser scanning, and digital twin software would have you think rockets are being built instead of 357in3 V8 stock cars.
“The most significant change is around the quality control and precision. The repeatability of the cars and the consistency of them is pretty incredible at this point,” Geisler says. “When I started, there were still people who were manually bending tubing and cutting and notching by hand. Now, we have a laser-cut, laser-bent tube that you weld together for your chassis. The number of CNC parts, the number of machined parts has exploded in the past 5-to-8 years.”
Setting the pace
It is not the team which is constantly chasing better technology, Geisler points out, but often the team which influences advancements in manufacturing technology.
“The pace of development in racing is probably what’s pushing the technologies that we interact with the most,” Geisler explains. “Considering the normal work environment at the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) level or at an aerospace level, we are kind of a mix of those worlds. Except, we build a product every week. An OEM design cycle is 3-to-4 years, an airplane can be 7, 8, or 10 years. We’ve got to have things now and everything is expected to be ready to go the next week.”
The human element
NASCAR drivers are the most sophisticated computers on the car. Technology is limited by what’s permissible by the series, making driver input and a stopwatch paramount meters in performance. Designing a racecar that fits a driver’s style is as important as any wind-tunnel test or digital simulation.
“Each guy wants a little bit different information,” Geisler notes. “Our crew chiefs try to tailor their preparation each week for them… [via simulation], we have a way of predicting what it’s going to do. You also have previous events, previous races, and we rely on those a lot.
“We go through with the drivers and discuss where we were before with the cars, what they talked about during the weekend the last time they were there that they wanted to make better… We do have some basic driver data throughout the weekend as well which we can analyze.
“That’s the good part of having teammates. We can use Joey Logano’s data versus Brad Keselowski’s data versus Ryan Blaney’s data. We can look at where each are making speed and maybe where a driver is losing a little bit of time… and you try to pinpoint the issues that you may be fighting.”
The right people
“Everybody at the pinnacle level of motorsports has the basic parts, pieces, tools, and resources to go and run well. From there it’s the ability of the people with a common focus, to interact with all the different tools and technology at their disposal and make the right decisions on how to weigh each one,” Geisler says. “Where do you spend your time? Do you weigh your aero or your mechanical grip, what about your seven-post time? Where do you spend your resources and effort, and what technologies do you leverage to make your decisions each week?
“The people who have been able to do that and grow with the new technologies as they develop are the ones who have been able to really be successful,” Geisler concludes.
For today’s manufacturers, business as usual often means meeting tight deadlines, while promising the highest levels of machining accuracy and quality. Though most modern manufacturers must walk this tightrope – one where they must continuously deliver superior parts and components at the speed of light – it might be fair to say that no shop faces the manufacturing challenges and turnaround times that Richard Childress Racing (RCR) does.
A crew chief might request a part from RCR Manufacturing Manager Rocky Helms in the middle of the week. Then Rocky and his team have to deliver it before the race on Sunday. That’s not a lot of time for part ideation, design, cutting, and testing – but somehow, some way, they do it almost every week during race season.
While Rocky and his team are dedicated to process, they are also reliant on Okuma machines. Currently, RCR has 18 Okuma machines and counting, mostly because the equipment offers the accuracy, speed, and dependability RCR needs to deliver before race days. In fact, the Okuma-RCR partnership dates back to the turn of the century.
“We have two machines here that were the very first ones put in in 2001,” Rocky says. “They’re 17 years old, and they run just as good today as they did the first day they were here.”
The swift service and support that Okuma supplies is just as critical to his operation.
“No matter how good the piece of equipment is, the harder you run it, the longer you run it, and the more you’re asking of it, you’re going to have things come up,” Rocky says. “Our deadlines don’t usually get the option of moving, so when you do have something happen, it’s nice to call and not end up in a three-week wait to get somebody to come fix it.”
While every manufacturer wants to avoid downtime, they understand that it’s inevitable. What matters most is ensuring that any downtime is as short as possible – which is why Rocky has so many Okumas in his shop. He trusts the build quality, but also knows when a problem arises he can jump on the phone with Okuma to troubleshoot an issue himself, or have someone on-site quickly to solve the problem.
Another benefit of the Okuma-RCR partnership is the Richard Childress Racing/Okuma Technology Center, which is where they work together to create components that stand up to the tough conditions of NASCAR racing. Of course, even having that advantage isn’t going to take away those tough deadlines for Rocky and his team any time soon.
But days like Feb. 18, 2018, make all the long hours and tough turnarounds worth it. That’s when Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 for RCR, won a fairly big race you’ve probably heard of. Did it motivate Rocky and his team?
“Yes,” Rocky says. “Winning the Daytona 500 helps a lot.”
I’m not talking about violating race circuit rules by shaving some weight out of regulated structures or adding banned technology. It’s higher stakes than that.
Racing is about cheating death – doing everything possible to break the laws of physics or at least push them to the breaking point.
For most of human history, mankind was limited first by how fast our feet could carry us, and later by how fast a horse could run. Even then, we watched people run and ride, hoping to see someone push the limits of what we once thought was possible.
Racing wasn’t born from motorsports. It’s an urge buried deep in the human psyche. After the first human being stood upright and took a step forward, the next person probably said, “I can do that faster than you.”
You don’t consider yourself competitive in that way? Have you ever noticed yourself driving faster on the freeway because the cars around you are speeding up? It’s the same primal force.
Adding engines and wheels to our desire to be at the front of a fast-moving pack raised the stakes. At the 1895 Chicago Times-Herald race, the first official auto race in the United States, the winning car averaged 7mph… on wooden wagon wheels. Within a decade, racers were nearing 100mph.
Mechanizing our lust for speed shifted performance away from the lone runner to a team of technological experts – mechanics who could keep engines running, designers who could find ways to get more power out of every drop of fuel, and the machinists who could craft parts to tight tolerances in ridiculously short timeframes.
Motorsports critics claim that the appeal is morbid; people watching cars flying around tracks in hopes of seeing horrific accidents. I’d argue that it’s the reverse. Fans want to see human beings exceed our limitations.
Danger adds to the excitement – a human being shouldn’t be able to move more than 200mph on land. It’s not how we were built. Cheating death is part of the appeal of watching such a spectacle, but the bigger thrill is seeing humanity conquering the impossible.
In the following pages, Today’s Motor Vehicles celebrates the technology that racing has brought to the world and the people who have made those advances possible. And many of those people were cheaters.
Williams Racing pioneered continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) in Formula 1 racing. The company’s reward? Rules changes banning such systems. The history of racing is littered with such stories – race team engineers looking to tweak what was possible for a critical few seconds. Many of those tweaks led to breakthroughs in passenger car capability and performance. Virtually every component on modern cars – wheel hubs to fuel-tank caps, steering wheels to engines – benefited from the needs of drivers pushing their vehicles to the limits of what’s possible.
So, cheers to the cheaters. This industry needs people who look at the extremes of capability and performance and say, “Not fast enough!”
5 stages of human/robot interaction
Features - Robotics
Stäubli North America’s Sebastien Schmitt discusses automation integration from fully enclosed systems to collaborative robots.
With any automation project, industrial designers need to balance cost with performance, flexibility with speed, and safety with productivity. Modern sensing and control systems allow robots to work alongside employees for maximum flexibility or completely walled away from people for increased safety. Robot producer Stäubli has defined five levels of man-robot collaboration (MRC) and introduced the TX2 robot with its CS9 controller to support each level. The robot-controller combination allows manufacturers to use the same hardware for fully enclosed to fully collaborative robots. Robotics Division Manager Sebastien Schmitt recently sat down with Today’s Motor Vehicles to discuss the pros and cons of interaction stages, and how to configure systems.
Hard guarding separates robot from operators; manufacturing process performed entirely by robots
Pros: Robots can safely operate at highest possible speeds; simple safety systems Cons: Lowest flexibility; interacting with robots requires full machine stoppage
Schmitt: “Full speed is possible when the robot is fenced in. High productivity comes from being able to take advantage of the full performance of the robot. You can run at the maximum speed of the robot.”
There are fewer safety concerns when robots are completely enclosed. When the door to the cage opens, robots stop moving.
“As you move toward collaboration, the more in-depth risk analysis you have to do. If people aren’t interacting with robots, safety is much easier to evaluate.”
Laser, virtual guarding separates robot from operators; manufacturing process performed entirely by robots, human operators enter area periodically
Pros: Supports palletized production, more flexible than Stage 1 Cons: More interaction with operators creates safety challenges; can be slower than Stage 1
Schmitt: “Instead of being completely enclosed, you open a side of the system, so you open up more risk by creating the ability for someone to walk in and walk out.”
Typically, users set up laser scanners and safety curtains to determine when a person is near the robot and program controls to react accordingly. Multiple systems create redundant backups to ensure that robots are not moving at full speed when people are in proximity.
Most users who opt for Stage 2 instead of Stage 1 MRC do so for material loading and unloading.
“If you have a box coming in from a conveyor and you want operators to come in and unload pallets when they’re full, you want robots to be able to continue working,” Schmitt says. “You don’t want a door to open that will stop the robot. You don’t want the operator to have to push a button and stop the system. They need to interact with the environment.”
Laser, virtual guarding separates robot from operators; robots and operators share manufacturing processes; people regularly enter work zone
Pros: More flexible than Stage 2; faster than collaborative environments Cons: Complex safety requirements; slower than Stages 1, 2
Schmitt: “Stage 3 requires the operator in its process. In Stage 2, the machine is autonomous, but in Stage 3, the user is closer to the machine more often.”
The mid-point in MRC allows for great flexibility in system configuration because the operator will direct workflows and perform some process or assembly operations. The robot can still operate quickly, but users have to go through complex safety planning to ensure that the robot is aware of where the operator is at all times and adjust its operations accordingly.
“In using a robot in a collaborative way, you have to be cautious not to have sharp angles as part of the design because those create risk to the operator,” Schmitt says. “The zones have to be properly defined. You have to very carefully balance throughput, speed, and safety. It’s a tradeoff. The speed required for high-volume operations are not compatible with collaborative environments.”
No physical separation between operators and robots; robots and operators share manufacturing processes; robots stop when they contact people
Schmitt: “The robot is moving while the person is standing next to it, so we need to be able to interact with it and stop the system. We put a safety skin on the robots that we call TX2 touch that senses any contact with the operator. If it senses any contact, the robot stops.”
Because people and robots are operating in the same space, the system must limit robotic capabilities while operators are present. So, Stage 4 systems are slower than earlier stages, but they can still be attractive for manufacturers hoping to boost flexibility.
“You can still work the robot at full speed, but it only does that when no one is standing next to it,” Schmitt says, adding that proper configuration of laser scanners and light curtains is critical. “When a person enters the zone near the robot, the machine slows to a safer mode.”
No physical separation between operators and robots; robots and operators share manufacturing processes; humans touch and move robots, directing their motion
Pros: Full collaboration between operator and robot; most-flexible option; no safety skin required Cons: Slowest option; special controls needed for man-machine interaction
Schmitt: “The person uses the robot as a tool to help perform an operation in this configuration. With fine assembly, for example, a person can hand-guide the robot to pick up a part and move it to another part for assembly. For heavy pieces, a person couldn’t hold both pieces for assembly, so the robot handles the weight, but the person hand-guides the position.”
Rather than use a skin to sense contact, the robot expects the person to touch systems. So instead of stopping when it senses contact, the robot stops when the person is not touching the controls. Operators interact with machines using controls with force sensors – when the person pushes the control in a direction, the force sensor interprets that motion and moves the robotic arm accordingly. When the operator isn’t touching the controls, the robot does nothing.