Cat shakes up machines to make sure they can handle work hazards
In a rather small, nondescript building on the Caterpillar Inc. campus in Mossville, earthquakes are created all day, every day.
They cannot be heard or felt, however, by anybody outside the building or for the most part, inside.
But the Caterpillar machines being tested inside the company's new durability testing lab are pounded and bounced and shaken for all they're worth.
"This is like a mini-earthquake we've created in here for this testing. It's a lot like they would do to make sure a building in California can withstand an earthquake," said Pam Roberts, the engineering supervisor of the testing lab.
"This is programmed to cycle through many different applications or 'damaging events' so we can see what adjustments have to be made," Roberts said of the Caterpillar D8 tractor being tested on the big shaker last week.
"Damaging events" are the bumps and road hazards and such that a piece of Caterpillar equipment would likely experience while in the field.
The D8 was hooked, strapped and pinned to the larger of the two tables in the 10,698 square-foot building, the one with a 35,000-pound payload that is surrounded by a seismic mass of 5 million pounds of concrete. The mass is basically its own island - within the building, but not connected to the rest of the floor. That way, the shaking won't affect the entire building.
The second shaker is called the Hexapod and its payload, 7,500 pounds, is smaller, as is its seismic mass. On it, the company will test various machine components, including cabs or coolant systems.
Testing component-by-component is the only way to do lab testing for some pieces of equipment that are too large to test at once, such as large mining trucks, Roberts said. "That takes a little longer, but it is still invaluable," she said.
Together, the seismic masses surrounding the shaker tables incorporate 8.2 million pounds of concrete that took 213 concrete trucks to build, the company said.
The lab, formally known as the Large Payload Structural Dynamics Laboratory, was completed in April of this year, after 18 months of planning and construction. The shaker tables are actually multi-axis simulation tables suspended on hydraulics.
Caterpillar invested in the $16.5 million lab because it knew it needed an effective way to more quickly test its machines and engines to make sure they meet the U.S. government's next round of emission regulations, known as Tier 4, which take effect Jan. 1, 2011.
"Just think of all the 300 machines that are going to have to go through Tier 4 regulations. This lab and our other virtual testing will position us to be ready for Tier 4," said Mark Craig, director of global validation for Caterpillar.
He explained that products first are tested through virtual reality, which will point out to engineers the potential structural problems. "That teaches us what the machine is capable of but also how to remedy potential problems. We continually build on lessons learned," said Roberts.
Once problems are corrected, a machine is built for the shaker lab.
There, the shaker table is programmed to duplicate the conditions a machine would go through in the field and is boiled down to repetitive damaging events. When done rapidly, that causes the violent shaking. The program stops at regular intervals to allow engineers to inspect the machine to make sure there are no unforeseen problems.
The shaker table is able to reduce three or four years worth of wear and tear to about one month of testing. "One hour in this lab is like 20 hours in the field," said Roberts.
That saves the company the expense and time of having to building several of the machines for field testing to get the same results, said Craig.
He said not only will the new testing lab help ready Caterpillar for Tier 4, it will improve the overall quality of its products, save on warranty costs and reduce the cycles of product development.
"We hope to solve most of the potential problems with new products at the virtual level before we invest in the iron. That is far less expensive for the company," Craig said.
Caterpillar started construction of the lab before the recession took hold, and decided to finish it because of the need to prepare for Tier 4 - which will happen regardless of the economy - and because of the overall investment in the company's future, Craig said.
The lab's $16.5 million price was but a small portion of Caterpillar's $1.2 billion in capital expenditures in Illinois alone in 2008 and 2009. That was more than Caterpillar spent on capital expenditures in any other state or country.
At a meeting of industry analysts in August, Group President Steve Wunning said the ability to test and validate quickly will "be essential for Tier 4, which is the largest and most complex product development cycle Caterpillar or anyone in our industry has undertaken."
Wunning told the analysts that the testing Caterpillar does today - either simulation or lab testing - before putting iron in the field can save the company a large amount of money to correct problems.
"It's about time and it's about quality," he said. "The machine test is if you find a problem in the field, with the iron, and it costs $1,000 to fix the problem, if you were able to find the problem in the lab with test iron, that $1,000 problem could be solved for $100. So it's 10 cents on the dollar. Now, if you could find the problem on the simulation, it would be $10. So it's pennies on the dollar.
"So not only do you find the problems earlier, when it's easier to correct and less expensive, you find it much earlier in the process, so you speed up your product development time and you find the problems earlier, so you can solve them earlier, so you can have higher-quality products," Wunning said.
Paul Gordon can be reached at (309) 686-3288 or email@example.com.