Efficiency drive

A system that could tell mechanics which car parts need servicing has been developed by Cambridge University researchers


A system that could tell mechanics which car parts need servicing has been developed by Cambridge University researchers aided by specially-designed ID tags from Omni-ID, a subsidiary of defence company Qinetiq.

The team attached RFID tags, each with its own unique identification number, to the engine parts of a specially-adapted Fiat prototype. With sophisticated software, the system could speed up servicing and identify which parts can be recycled or re-used when the vehicle reaches the end of its life.

The researchers, from the university’s Institute for Manufacturing, demonstrated how the car could be examined by driving it at low speed over a one-metre square servicing pad fitted with an ultra-high frequency reader and four antennas.

As the car passes over the pad, the readers transmit the identity number from the electronic tags to a computer.

By cross-referencing this information with a computerised database — for example, one showing the part’s date and manufacturer — mechanics would be able to identify at the click of a mouse those parts that needed to be checked for wear.

It could also be beneficial to carmakers in preventing the delivery of a faulty batch of vehicles to showrooms. The RFID tags could immediately single them out and allow the manufacturer to recall them before they go out to customers.

The system seems like an elegantly simple solution to many manufacturer’s traceability problems, but senior researcher on the project prof Andy Shaw said there were many challenges involved in implementing this technology.

‘It has been very difficult up until now to tag metal objects because the objects themselves interfere with the RF field associated with the tags,’ said Shaw.

This is where Omni-ID came in. The company provided Shaw’s research group with tags that work when mounted on metal objects. The RFID tag developer designed tags backed with a dielectric insulator that lifts them far enough off the metal so that their RF field isn’t interfered with.

One other challenge, said Shaw, still lies ahead. If this system is to be implemented on a wide scale, it will need a universal ID system.

‘To make this technology work you want one identification system as standard,’ he said. ‘So, for example, you don’t want to have a situation where only Fiat garages can read Fiat cars.’

Shaw said the specially- equipped service pads should be easy and relatively cheap to implement at most garages. The equipment needed is similar to most mechanics’ diagnostic computer kits and should cost less than £1,000.

Cambridge’s RFID tracking system is part of a larger EU project called Product Lifecycle Management and Information Tracking Using Smart Embedded Systems (PROMISE).

The project follows a series of high-profile EU legislation with similar goals. One directive adopted in 2000 requires that carmakers will have to re-use or recycle 85 per cent of an end-of-life vehicle by 2015.

Shaw said his team hopes that its system will be as useful at the beginning and middle of a vehicle’s life as at the end.

‘You want to use the same technology when you’re making, using and disposing of the car,’ he said.

He added that the team also hopes the technology will be useful in the aviation industry. ‘Boeing is tagging several thousand parts on its 787 Dreamliner, and the company has carried out trials to prove the system doesn’t interfere with the avionics.’

The next step will be to integrate sensors into the system so that the RFID tags could, for example, tell a mechanic which engine parts need looking at without opening the bonnet.

‘The tags currently just provide identification, but we are carrying out research which would integrate various types of sensors,’ said Shaw. ‘The technology is moving that way, so the tags might one day contain accelerometers or temperature sensors to provide a history of how the vehicle has been used.’

For any further research to continue, however, Shaw said they will need industry partners.

‘We’re looking to get a consortium from from the automotive sector together to see how we can move this research forward and get direct applications going,’ he said.