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Tech Trends

Gaining an Edge Through Data

Tomoyuki Mineta

An increasing number of Japanese manufacturers are using electronic data to develop their products and keep them competitive.

A project is under way at this automaker in Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan. Workers are collecting data needed for various operations for making engines. Their goal is to boost fuel efficiency. The workers collect at least 300 pieces of data for one operation. This tells them all sorts of information, including the size of holes or the thickness and surface conditions of parts.

Previously, engineers would perform visual checks of the conditions inside engine cylinders. Nowadays, the job is done using sets of data.

Even small scratch marks on the surface inside a cylinder can result in air leaks that can reduce an engine's combustion efficiency. The workers use a state-of-the-art laser scanner to get the data they need. They are trying to make the cylinder walls as smooth as possible, so that the engine doesn't burn more fuel than necessary.

A state of the art laser scanner used to check for any imperfections.

The automaker, Mazda, plans to develop a next-generation engine. Part of the job involves analyzing a vast database. It says that by using data to manufacture products, it hopes to excel on the world stage.

GE Japan in Niigata Prefecture produces valves for use in oil refineries. It's a subsidiary of a US multi-national corporation. Skilled workers have long made custom-ordered valves by hand. Last December, the company introduced an advanced printer that can create three-dimensional metal objects. It aims to use the printers to produce the valves. After workers input design plan data, the devices can churn out components automatically. The valves are then heat-treated. But this operation is tricky, because the heat can cause deformities of a hundredth of a millimeter in the metal.

Workers put in data for a new part to be 3D printed.

One of the employees has handled more than 50 types of metals. He says he knows by experience how they react under heat, depending on the metal's type and shape.

The company plans to gain a competitive edge by combining its workers' skills with its database. Its chief executive says that the use of printers is revolutionary, as it will allow products to be manufactured closer to the markets where they are sold.

These companies hope the data they collect, analyze, and process will boost their manufacturing skills, and take them to a higher level.

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