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Smart Bolt

Waiting for me in my inbox this morning was an e-mail from a long-time friend who works in the financial industry (that fact is sort of important later).   The email was titled, “Stuff You Should Know About.”   That kind of histrionic title could mean anything from, “I’m using code words to get you to watch a video about a kangaroo that likes to ride bikes” to stuff that I actually should know will be awaiting me when I double-click.  (Don’t judge me.) In today’s case, it was the latter. Thankfully. Are you curious yet?

What I received today was a link to a Popular Mechanics article  on GM’s new “smart bolt,” the “key to GM’s high-tech assembly line.” (This is where this whole thing goes back to my point about the financial industry-- people love manufacturing whether they know it or not, and whether they work in the industry or not, and love it so much they feed me stuff I should know about for this blog.)

First and foremost, I have to admit, I was simply struck by how, well, cool this technology is. The smart bolt, also called a data bolt, is shaped like a regular bolt and is threaded on one end, but the head is hollow. Inside are a memory chip (or RFID tag) and a coiled metal filament, which acts like an antenna. Created specially to carry an RFID tag (and have it survive the process), smart bolts are temporarily inserted into one of a block's or cylinder head's existing holes that will later be used by another bolt when the part is secured to an engine. The technology is still a bit too new to have had a lot of time to spread, but along with being just really awesome and science fiction-y, it also has amazing implications for risk management.

Data bolts store information (obviously)—2 kilobytes’ worth. That’s a very small amount of data by modern standards, when a single MP3 is somewhere between 3 and 5 megabytes. For everyone who is as bad at remembering these prefixes as I am, a kilobyte is 1000 bytes, and a megabyte is 1000 squared, or 1,000,000 bytes, according to my online research. It seems small, when you break it down into those terms, but it is enough to record every single manufacturing process the engine block or cylinder head undergoes. This forms the key to the whole track-and-trace system GM has implemented, with each bolt’s data getting uploaded to factory servers. That’s a long way from dial-up and floppy discs, my friends.

The main goal in implementing this new technology is quality control, as each machine can now inspect the work of the machine before it. If any of the machines on the floor do not complete their duties to perfection, the next machine in line can tell and will shunt any out-of-spec engine block or cylinder head off the line to be inspected by a worker. That’s probably as close to identifying problems before they start as I can fathom.   It also makes it easier to identify problems post-production—when a supplier notifies the factory about bad parts, GM can now zero in on exactly which engines those parts were installed on based on the saved data sent by the bolts.  I’m sure no one would miss the days of uncertainty and mass product recalls, right?

My pal was right.  I should know about this stuff, and I’m glad I do.  Of course now I’m envisioning 1,001 other uses for a smart bolt…

About the author

Mark Schmit

Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP), since 1988, has been committed to strengthening U.S. manufacturing, continually evolving to meet the changing needs of manufacturers. As division chief for regional and state partnerships, Mark is the lead for division policy and has assisted in the development of programs supporting manufacturing and industrial extension technology-based economic development, and entrepreneurship practices with state elected officials and policy makers, including the MEP policy academies, which were designed by MEP and partners to help states build upon existing strategies, leverage available resources, and spur creative new ideas about how to address major challenges or leverage opportunities around the manufacturing sector.  Mark is responsible for developing partnerships with both the public and private sector entities. He was an MEP co-lead for the creation of MFG Day, an outreach program held on the first Friday in October to show students, parents, and the public what modern manufacturing is all about, with growing annual participation across the United States. Mark was a 2001, 2005, 2014, and 2020 recipient of NIST’s George Uriano Award.  The George Uriano Award recognizes outstanding achievements by NIST staff in building and strengthening NIST extramural programs and partnerships.

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Just for reference - that 2 kilobyte storage is vast by comparison to large (size) computers made by IBM in the '60's! It had a whopping 1.6 KiloBIT of memory. Remember (or not) that a byte is 8 BITS of information (a bit being a single, digital piece of information, either a "1" or a "0". So the Smart Bolt holds 16 kilobits of data, 10 times the storage of the IBM's in 1966.

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