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New lab at UNC Charlotte will allow precise industrial measurements

Ruby-tipped styli, like the ones on the Leitz CCM in UNC Charlotte’s new Siemens Energy Large Manufacturing Solutions Laboratory, touch certain points on a part to obtain precise measurements.
Ruby-tipped styli, like the ones on the Leitz CCM in UNC Charlotte’s new Siemens Energy Large Manufacturing Solutions Laboratory, touch certain points on a part to obtain precise measurements. COURTESY OF MIKE HERMANN

A new state-of-the-art laboratory that has the ability to measure objects with precise accuracy from 1/50th the width of a human hair up to the size of a compact car opened this month inside UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center.

The new Siemens Energy Large Manufacturing Solutions Laboratory was made possible by a $2million gift from Siemens Energy and Hexagon Metrology.

Siemens Energy, makers of large-scale gas and steam turbines that are purchased by electric utilities worldwide, financed the $1million construction of the laboratory, which required an environmental chamber that holds the temperature at a constant 68 degrees.

Hexagon Metrology, suppliers of measurement instruments for manufacturing, provided a Leitz PMM-F 30-20-16, a $1 million coordinate-measure machine that analyzes a product’s dimensions to ensure accuracy.

All products, from toothbrushes to car doors, have an exact set of dimensions and tolerances from the manufacturer. “For some products, like a toothbrush, it doesn’t matter,” said John Ziegert, a professor of mechanical engineering at UNC Charlotte and director of the Siemens Large Manufacturing Lab.

“But for gas-turbine engines, automobile engines, aerospace, iPhones and iPads – that kind of accuracy is actually critically important to the functionality of the device,” Ziegert said.

Most large manufactured parts range from 5 to 100 feet, Ziegert said. Until now, the university’s Center for Precision Metrology, which opened in the 1980s, could only measure products from atomic scale up to 3 feet.

Because large-scale products often aren’t mass-produced, and the costs to make just one is usually expensive and time-consuming, the need for accuracy is particularly vital, Ziegert said.

“In this large-scale arena of complex precision products, the first one has to be right. There’s no trial and error involved,” he said. “You can’t say, oops, I made a mistake. We’re going to put that one in the dumpster and try again.

“Its value, when it’s delivered to you, may be around $1million.”

The environmental chamber was mandatory for the Leitz machine to function properly: Temperature plays a key part in maintaining a product’s tolerances.

“Most people are aware that when the temperature changes, almost everything in the world expands and contracts,” said Ziegert. “So by international treaty of basically every industrialized nation in the world, when you specify a dimension for a manufactured component, that means that the dimension should be when the component is exactly 68 degrees Fahrenheit.”

In addition to being used by students, Siemens Energy, Hexagon Metrology and other businesses throughout North Carolina will benefit from the laboratory on the university campus, Ziegert said.

“Our goal is to work with companies to help them to get over the hurdles that they are facing right now, so that they can make their components faster, better, cheaper,” he said.

Research funded by the federal government also will be conducted at the new laboratory and will vary, said Ziegert, depending on the kinds of proposals written.

Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at lisathornton@carolina.rr.com.

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