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Shaping up tubes

A measurement system controls a bending machine to consistently produce quality tubes

When it comes to auto racing, speed is king and anything that can be done to get that extra mile per hour is a bonus, no matter how small that thing might be. Even a small part, such as a tube, pipe or hose that transports oil or other fluids throughout the race car, can provide an edge.

That is the belief of parts supplier Brown & Miller Racing Solutions, manufacturers of tubes, pipes, hoses and fittings and experts at custom-bent tubes for use under the hood or anywhere else on the vehicle. More than 15 years ago, BMRS began supplying racing teams with hoses, and then a couple of years later, the company’s fortunes grew as it began to offer bent tubes to its NASCAR customers.

NASCAR officials had mandated that oil lines be relocated from inside the car – literally going under and around the driver – to underneath it. With the new placement, the oil lines needed to be made from metal to protect them from damage. 

“We started with four or five cars in the field, working directly with the racing teams,” says Wade Brown, cofounder and director of U.S. operations for the company. “The more we learned about the cars, the more we felt we could make better products for them. That is our goal, every single day, to make the race car go faster.”

In 1999, Brown founded the company in Concord, N.C., near Charlotte, with colleague Barry Miller. The two had worked at an aerospace parts supply company that sold specific small hoses to that industry and felt that these hoses could be marketed to the racing industry. The company started out with four employees in the United States and four in the United Kingdom, where it has its European headquarters.

Today, the company supplies a variety of parts, including fuel lines, oil lines, brake lines and titanium parts, and has 30 employees in North Carolina and 15 employees in the United Kingdom. Fueled by design innovations, the company now supplies tubes and hoses to all NASCAR teams as well as tubing components to Formula 1, Sprint, Midget and other racing teams.

 

Custom design

Many of the parts BMRS manufactures, including the bent oil lines that run under the cars, are custom designed for the individual racing team. While the idea to route hard tubing under a car might seem simple, it can prove to be a design challenge as each car’s design team has a different way to route the lines, says Rick White, BMRS production manager. Tolerances are tight and space is cramped, so finding room for the line to wind around often immovable components in the race car can be difficult.

Adding to the challenge is that the racing crews’ design engineers often hand bend the first tube as a model to fit in the allotted space. Producing that same tube again with consistent repeatability and reproducibility is not easy, but is critical to customers who need redundant parts that, at times, have to be replaced in the field.

Upgrading capabilities

For about a decade, BMRS had used a Romer Absolute Arm portable coordinate measuring machine (CMM) for inspecting parts and a Gtube scanning tube for basic scanning needs, but when the Romer unit became obsolete and its software was no longer supported, the company began to look to upgrade this capability. Brown wanted to improve part-to-part consistency as well as increase the company’s ability to generate CAD files. He also wanted to decrease turnaround times for his customers.

In considering customer needs, Brown and White recognized that they had a bigger challenge than just bending tubes. What they required was a fast, accurate way to obtain engineering drawings of the oil lines so they could be entered into the tube bending systems’ operating platform. That way, the company could ensure that the parts were accurate and repeatable over time.

What they finally settled on was a measuring system that could help them on several fronts. The Romer 75 Absolute Arm CMM with TubeShaper software, available from Hexagon Mfg. Intelligence, combines a portable CMM arm with non-contact tube probes and purpose-built TubeShaper software.

 

Pushing the envelope

On the NASCAR racing circuit, the time to the finish line between the winner and runner ups can come down to tenths of seconds. To earn the checkered flag, every advantage must be considered. The tolerances for the race cars and their individual components are so minute and the mandated quality standards they must meet so exact, that race car companies invest in high-tech manufacturing and metrology equipment to gain all the advantage that they can.

But, it is not just about bettering their competition. The race cars have to meet standards that were established by NASCAR’S governing body to improve safety but also promote fair competition.

Hendrick Motorsports is one of the country’s leading race car companies. Some of the famous names that have driven Hendrick vehicles include Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. And some of its success may be due to the company’s role as an early implementer of test, measurement and inspection equipment. To meet regulations, the company mirrored NASCAR’s efforts by using the same metrology equipment used by NASCAR, much of which is available from Hexagon Mfg. Intelligence.

Hendrick is a longtime user of Romer Absolute Arms and GridLok volume-expansion systems, which are available from Hexagon, as well as Hexagon coordinate measuring machines (CMMs) to inspect and assemble auto bodies, chassis and engine components for pre-race fine tuning and post-race evaluation.

Recently, Hendrick and Hexagon entered into a two-year collaborative agreement, allowing Hendrick to preview new Hexagon equipment before it reaches the marketplace. Hendrick can participate in beta testing and provide user feedback during the course of development projects.

“This relationship gives Hendrick access to additional offerings and emerging technologies to drive performance across our entire organization,” says Doug Duchardt, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports. “Working closely with Hexagon’s technical personnel provides a higher level of training and allows us to see the full potential of each product we use.”

Hendrick operates four racing teams and runs cars in the Sprint Cup Series from the middle of February to late November. During that timeframe, the company’s cars run in a total of 39 races. To keep the cars operational and within specifications, redundant parts are stocked for each race, and these parts may be customized between races based on race factors such as track type. Brandon Evans, an engineer with Hendrick, says that the metrology equipment is used extensively for each car, the components, assembly and post-race testing.

“The first thing we do is we build the bare chassis,” Evans says. “We use a Romer arm to measure all the suspension areas on it, and make sure that everything would pass inspection by NASCAR.”

To measure the entire race car, Hendrick installed 20 GridLok service plates in its shop to move around the car and measure it with ease.

“The arm gives us the accuracy we want and speeds up the testing process,” he says. “Since we started using these arms, we don’t have to use tape measures and levels like we used to. Being able to have that confidence that we’re able to pass inspection is critical. That sets the bar for us.”

That bar was set with the help of Hexagon experts who worked closely with the NASCAR Research and Development Center to develop the methodology used to verify and enforce race car design rules and exacting standards for chassis design. The portable CMMs and the GridLok system are used to acquire coordinate data to gain insight into vehicle performance.

“Starting in 2006,” Evans says, “NASCAR began work on what they called the car of the future, the next generation of car. Starting that year, they really tightened down the tolerances on what we could build. Before we used to measure body panels in inches, but now we have to be within 0.010 in. or less.”

 

Wade Brown, co-founder of BMRS was pivotal in relocating oil lines to a safe location – underneath the race car.

Beyond expectations

Using the new Romer TubeShaper system, BMRS is able to turn parts around quickly and be sure that they meet the customer’s specifications. It can scan the customer’s part, bend the tube on-site, check the work to ensure that it meets requirements, and send the customer the associated CNC and CAD files.

“Customers have brought us parts that they have taken off of a car for us to duplicate, and they can’t wait for us to make a new one because they need to take that part back with them and put it back on the car,” White says. “With the Romer arm, we can scan that part in minutes and save the data for us to bend in the future, meaning they can take that part back with them versus having to wait for hours while we hand measure the original.”

The non-contact tube probes, which make up the laser measuring system, are used to scan the entire length of the tube, gathering data on size, wall thickness, degree of bend and other information. The scan is turned into a CAD file for future reference.

“The software allows us to make changes much more rapidly and to make drawings very quickly, and the laser measuring system gives us the ability to measure more accurately than the human eye,” Brown says. “With these tools, it literally takes us minutes to do these jobs.”

White says the TubeShaper is a central hub for communication between the bending machines and the CMM. It stores all the data for individual parts as they are scanned or it captures the data from CAD files that are supplied from the customer. When a customer needs a part, the TubeShaper sends the appropriate information to the designated bending machine. White says this can include critical information such as springback.

“If we need a 90-degree bend, it might take a 92.5-degree bend to get it to 90 degrees because of the material springback,” he says, “and we can program that.”

After bending, the tube is scanned again to make sure it meets specifications. If it doesn’t, then new data is inputted to the CAD file and sent to the bending machine for rebending and testing. Once the product meets specification, its TubeShaper file becomes a reference for future parts of that model part.

BMRS utilizes two benders, an AddisonMcKee CNC bending machine capable of bending 2-in.-dia. tubes and a second, smaller Alpine machine that can bend tubes from 3/16 in. up to 1/2 in. in diameter. To ensure that the fluids flow unimpeded, White says that it is critical to maintain the tube’s roundness, especially when the tube is made from thin-wall materials. In this case, mandrels are used to fit inside the tube’s inner diameter to help maintain its structure.

“The Alpine machine rotates it in all directions, so it’s a left-hand bender and a right-hand bender,” White says. “It’s mainly used to do complex bends up to 1/2 in. in diameter.”

White says that the company is always trying to better utilize its equipment to provide new and better parts for its customers. With its new capabilities, BMRS can now offer precision bending services in a size range of 1/8 in. to 2 in., in aluminum, steel, stainless steel and titanium. But it is the bending department where much of the innovation resides.

“We’re trying to produce more complex bends to route lines around components,” White says, “and the space is just getting tighter and tighter.”

To meet these goals, however, the company relies on its TubeShaper-driven capabilities.

“It does all the thinking for the benders,” he says. “It tells the machine ‘I want you to do this’ and the machine bends the tube. The TubeShaper dictates what’s good and what’s not.”

Brown Miller Racing Solutions

Hendrick Motorsports

Hexagon Mfg. Intelligence