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Search for the Missing Link


Monitoring data is a good first start

By Jim Lorincz
Senior Editor 

In manufacturing plants in the not-too-distant future, flat-screen monitors, called dashboards, will display manufacturing performance data gleaned from every discrete data-generating/collecting digital device plantwide in real time. The monitors resemble the dashboards of today's digitally enabled vehicles, and deliver the same feeling of control.

Information, after all, is power. And it's the power of data, not just collected, but also acted upon plantwide that is sought and increasingly valued by machine-tool builders, systems integrators, and, most importantly, their manufacturing customers.

Industry initiatives in automated manufacturing reveal important trends, as well as some stumbling blocks, to closing the loop on plant-wide communications. These trends include:

  • Single point of accountability continues to be the Holy Grail as machine-tool builders draw firm lines on just how open their API (application programming interface) will be to third-party devices and software without voiding warranties. Who has the ultimate responsibility for the system?
  • Manufacturers are requesting quotes for automated manufacturing systems that include integration of data collection/communication capability with their business systems. Some are even suggesting that availability of communications is almost as important as the model/brand of the machine.
  • Proprietary and custom-software programs from the builders, control suppliers, and third-party software suppliers continue to be important ways to mine and extract data from CNC controls. AMT's MT Connect will provide an alternative, royalty-free software standard for monitoring a dozen data variables throughout the manufacturing system.
  • Software that supplies the missing link between manufacturing data and the manufacturer's scheduling/analysis function is being recognized as "adding value" to closing the communications loop, and thus worth the added expense.
The dashboard monitor for MT Connect at IMTS demonstrated how 12 variables can be collected and monitored throughout the factory using the MT Connect open software standard.

IMTS 2008 may well go down in its long history as a watershed showcase of communications technologies for US manufacturers. Visitors to IMTS 2008 were able to see first hand the capability of the new MT Connect software standard developed by AMT—The Association For Manufacturing Technology (McLean, VA), working in conjunction with experts at the University of California at Berkeley.

MT Connect is a software standard that allows "universal" capture of data from manufacturing equipment. An open standard, MT Connect uses internet communications technology to seamlessly manage and analyze data for process and product optimization.

IMTS visitors were able to search the MT Connect system for parameters for their applications. "Interest from companies, universities, and third-party software providers was encouraging," says Paul Warndorf, vice president, AMT. "The next step is to evaluate suggestions we received, continue work on the software development kit, and encourage the user community to work with their suppliers." To help the user community, Warndorf has identified and listed the key individuals to contact at the companies and organizations involved in MT Connect in a Directory of Resources at the MT Connect Web site (

  • Sun Microsystems Inc. (Santa Clara, CA) announced that it will join the 22 members of the MT Connect Technical Advisory Group (MTAG) to further define the open communication protocol standard it helped create for the manufacturing technology industry a year ago. Sun Microsystems is joining what has become a concerted effort to tackle the many different sources of data within a manufacturing facility, regardless of process type, machine, or sensor type.    
  • Okuma America Corp. (Charlotte, NC) announced an agreement with SAP America Inc. that merges the technology of the Partners in Thinc with the SAP Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence (SAP MII) application to create a seamless solution for end users. Windows-compatible SAP software can be installed on Okuma's Thinc CNC control.

"There are no limitations to the thinking of how to use the power of SAP business solutions or the power of third and fourth-party hardware and software through the Okuma Thinc control," says Larry Schwartz, Okuma president and COO. The open communications that the Thinc control has introduced with more than 30 third-party suppliers of software and equipment was demonstrated at the Partners in Thinc booth, where cells demonstrated how production of precision parts for aerospace, medical, automotive, and other industries could be automated.

None was more dramatic than the Partners in Thinc cell, in which an air-cooled engine was machined and robotically assembled, and packaged ready for shipment. With the participation of about half of the Partners in Thinc, the cell demonstrated how parts for the engine could be produced on Okuma machine tools based on data and information seamlessly communicated in the system.

Sun Microsystems describes the scope of the challenge of gathering manufacturing data: "A typical manufacturing facility includes hundreds, if not thousands, of machines and autonomous systems that must operate together to produce high-quality products in a timely and cost-effective manner. While each of these machines and system accumulates information on its operation, this data usually cannot be readily shared. In turn, this data incompatibility makes it difficult to track machine efficiency, process flow, energy usage, tool path validation, and other manufacturing metrics. As a result, manufacturers are continually challenged to coordinate and optimize machines and systems to ensure that these individual components and the factory as a whole are operating at acceptable levels."

Ideally, automated manufacturing systems would reach deeper into the manufacturer's business, realizing total interactive integration with the company's operations to generate schedules for managing a diverse product mix through multiple manufacturing systems.

"The sharing of data between the robot controller, PLCs controlling conveyors and material handling systems, and CNCs running machines is a basic automation requirement," says John Lenz, president, CMS Research (Oshkosh, WI). "There might be a cell controller computer coordinating material delivery to the machines based on its own locally created schedule. The benefits of these automation systems break down when the control computers do not use or share data with other control computers. Everyone underestimates the amount of data and common formatting needed to integrate components for automatic operation. Raw material delivery, work orders, labor reporting, tracking of material, quality plans, all of these things are very important for the success of automated machining systems," Lenz explains.

"Now customers are asking the system and the automation to work with other systems within their factories, such as the ERP system, the maintenance system, and the quality system," says Lenz. "They're looking for more sharing of data to deliver the data back and forth. It's much more of a computer science deliverable than it is any kind of a control deliverable, and yet CNC controls are at the very heart of the manufacturing system, which begins with delivery of raw material and ends with shipped finished product."

This is how data flows through a factory. Most operations managers believe that monitoring current status is useless until information is used to adjust future schedules. Sail software from CMS Research supplies the missing link to scheduling, and uses this monitoring as a component of its allocation method of generating a daily schedule.

Within any manufacturing plant, there is a hierarchy of systems starting with ERP systems, delivering orders, receiving raw materials, filling orders, sending commands to the machine, and reporting labor, among others. Sharing data across the whole manufacturing system benefits machining, which is a key critical step.

"Today, when we quote and build automated systems, particularly for larger customers in the automotive, farming equipment, and construction worlds, they want complete factory communications in the systems, all the way from business software and ERP systems to scheduling and manufacturing systems," explains Jeff Hickernell, engineering-vp, Ellison Technologies (Warrenville, IL).

"Traditionally, automation has involved discrete I/Os, relay I/Os talking to equipment with ladder changes needed, among other things," says Hickernell. "We're working with Mori Seiki on an ethernet IP initiative with interfaces for Fanuc robots, bar feeds, rotary indexers, and high-pressure coolant systems, all of which are programmable. Instead of taking a couple of days to install a robot by having to connect a bunch of 24V wires to relays, there's need to connect just one ethernet cable and one hard-wired e-stop circuit required and some I/O mapping on both sides and you're good to go," says Hickernell.

"The driver still and always has been getting labor out of manufacturing. The biggest challenge is to automate successfully," says Andy Glaser of Ellison Technologies Automation. "Anybody can automate anything. The challenge is having the right plan for maximizing equipment uptime, meaning making more finished product at the end of the day with what you have. That means maximizing the work flow of the automation from feeding the system raw materials to taking away finished parts," says Glaser.

"Once you look at work flow, especially with many different product styles, creating a production schedule that maximizes system efficiency needs to take into account machine tool management, setup, and changeover" says Glaser. "The right system integrator will take into consideration the conditions for maximizing the machining assets for the customer. For example, these conditions include product mix, how long it takes to cut individual parts, what cutting tools are used, how many tools are used, styles of machines/workholding, and how the parts flow through the system," says Glaser.

"Monitoring is one thing. What you do with the information is another. We know that setup and changeover of fixturing and cutting tools take away from cutting time, so optimizing the way you want to run your product mix is key. Monitoring tells you what your utilization is, but it doesn't necessarily tell how to improve it," says Glaser.

Ellison is currently working on a spectrum of cell-control options, ranging from job shop to high-end automated manufacturing systems that can talk to ERP-type systems. A series of modular controller options are being considered, including SCADA systems, statistical control and data acquisition to identify where you are failing and where you are doing well, as well as communicating with ERP systems for scheduling and running algorithms in the background for optimization of work flow through the production machining cell.

Tooling is one of the areas with great potential because tooling represents both a substantial investment and an important opportunity for control. "Typically, each system, each automated cell, and each standalone machine has its own tool database, and tool data are typically held in the CNC itself resident to the machine," says Lenz. "Manufacturers realize that's not the best situation. They would like to get every tool in the factory onto one database. Through tooling identification, the CNC would know which tool and what offsets were needed, and tooling life would be reported, all automatically."

At IMTS, Okuma and Partners in Thinc demonstrated the possibilities of data sharing to a tooling system and to a material tracking system by opening up the API, and, perhaps, a window on what the future holds. "They've opened up an API in their Okuma Thinc control that allows an application programmer to get full access to all the data in the CNC. If you want to see how fast the spindle is turning, monitor tool life, see what program's running, count production, all that data is available through one common API, as well as material tracking, inspection, ordering, and SAP," Lenz says.


Mazak Automation Systems Announced

Mazak Corp. (Florence, KY) has established Mazak Automation Systems to respond to the increasing demand from manufacturers for the latest automated solutions for their investments in advanced manufacturing technology.

Integrex 300-II SY Palletech manufacturing cell

"Global competition has intensified over the last decade, but advanced parts manufacturing technologies allow American industries to become more productive and retain their competitive advantage," says Brian Papke, Mazak president. "With Mazak Automation Systems, we will work together with customers to ensure that their new investments provide the greatest benefits possible, including competitive advantage, profitability, and cash flow." The new Mazak Automation Systems department will draw upon the latest technologies and resources in the company to automate processing from raw material to finished parts, produced in done-in-one, untended operation on single machines or in multiple machine configurations. Systems include process and software engineering, project management, application support, customer support and extensive custom training. Advanced machine technology will be drawn from the array of HMCs, VMCs, five-axis machining centers, Integrex, and e-series machining centers. Devices for integration of load/unload, in-process measurement and inspection include bar feeds, robots, and the Palletech manufacturing system. As a supplier of automated systems, Mazak has an installed base of more than 475 Palletech systems and 200 expanded systems with 1040 spindles in the US to date.


Automation for the Job ShopFanuc RoboDrill VMC automated JobShop cell can produce six different parts untended with zero changeover time at Sunnen Products Co. (St. Louis).

The reliability of machine tools and especially robots has never been better and has put automation for untended operation well within the reach of job shops both in terms of productivity and investment required.

"Methods Machine Tools specializes in automating the Fanuc RoboDrill to create an automated solution (JobShop Cell) that enables job shops to aggressively compete, especially with low-cost third-world countries when labor costs matter. This, of course, is virtually all the time. Anyone competing in a low cost per part environment will benefit with JobShop Cell. The global playing field of low labor cost will drive users to an automated solution combined with the exceptional productivity of the RoboDrill. This is especially relevant when our customers are competing on a global playing field with low labor costs," explains Scott McIver, chairman and vp, product development, Methods Machine Tools Inc. (Sudbury, MA). "This automated solution enables shops to utilize the four or five hours during the day when production is lost because of shift changes, breaks, and lunch or dinner hours. The JobShop Cell is designed specifically for job shops with small to medium lot sizes, combining drilling, tapping, and milling capability of a RoboDrill VMC with a fully interfaced Fanuc six-axis robot for automated loading/unloading," says McIver. Preengineered to meet a job shop's need for simple installation, fast setups, quick changeovers, operator safety, and production flexibility, the JobShop Cell can be configured to handle virtually any part that will fit in its 6" (152-mm) vise or chuck. It comes complete with inbound and outbound conveyors and guarding. The heart of the cell, the Fanuc RoboDrill VMC, offers a 14 or 21-tool tool changer, torque to 526 ft-lb, rigid tapping to 5000 rpm, accelerations in X,Y,Z axes to 1.5 g, rapid traverses to 2125 ipm (54 m/min), feed rates to 1181 ipm (30 m/min), high-speed reverse tapping, thread milling, 1000 registerable programs that can be registered, and 54 work offsets. The high-speed, six-axis Fanuc LR Mate 200iC robot comes with grippers, a teaching pendant, and several programs that can be easily customized to user needs.


This article was first published in the November 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 11/1/2008

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