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Software Controls Productivity



Latest machine control software advances bolster manufacturing efficiency


By Patrick Waurzyniak
Senior Editor


Machine-tool control software makes the CNC equipment on the factory floor tick. With the latest software, manufacturers can wring critical process improvements from new machines and retrofit older machinery to boost productivity and stay ahead of the competition.

Control software suppliers offer a wide range of options, from proprietary controls with Windows-based PC front ends to fully open-architecture controls and the latest in human-machine interface (HMI) software. With Windows' popularity, most control software developers now supply Windows-based systems teamed with real-time operating systems (RTOS) that handle motion-control manufacturing operations on the factory floor.

Process efficiency improvements can be gained from using the CNC controls equipped with updated software. With the latest controls from GE Fanuc Automation Americas Inc. (Charlottesville, VA), users can achieve higher cutting speeds and efficiencies, according to Bill Griffith, CNC product manager. On the company's high-end 30i controls, software improvements directly relate to greater performance, with features including adaptive control and nanometer interpolation. Improved software algorithms also provide faster block processing and cutting.

"As we move to faster processors, we can do the more complicated mathematics faster, and the algorithms for processing blocks ahead and the interpolation of the moves can be done much faster," Griffith says. "In addition to just cutting faster, there's also the things like reducing the setup time on a machine. For that, we have software called our Easy Probe programming, allowing cartoons to be pulled up when an operator wants to do a fixture offset. Rather than having to know how to program in G-code, an operator can select a fixture offset, and he can move the probe down manually, touch off the part, and the control will automatically set the fixture offsets for him."           

Shop-floor programming software such as GE Fanuc's Manual Guide i package includes functionality such as Easy Probe programming, which greatly speeds part setup tasks. "There's also things like a part animation and a pre-check built into the Manual Guide i software, so as you're developing programs, you can see an animation of that part after you've developed it and you can check your program prior to running it," Griffith says. "Those are all things that allow you to reduce your setup time."

Control software teams with improved hardware to provide very precise and smooth motor control, Griffith adds, with a feature called nanometer interpolation included with all GE Fanuc 30i-family CNCs. "Nanometer interpolation allows us to very accurately pass commands to the servosystem, down in a nanometer unit," Griffith states. "In most servosystems, you're passing commands in a micron. But it's the advances in the hardware that have now allowed us to do these advanced algorithms, so that we can pass data down into these very fine units and be able to handle them in both the servo software and the CNC software."

Shop-floor programming software from Siemens includes the latest ShopMill version 6.4 package allowing users to achieve higher productivity with improved, easier-to-use software for milling. The updated ShopMill software includes onscreen programming with dynamic new 3-D animations of tools used by customers to complete milling operations.

"We've enhanced the software with a new graphical tool table, so that when an operator defines a tool, they actually can see the shape of the tool on the screen," notes Randy Pearson, manager, dealer and end-user support, Siemens Energy & Automation Inc.'s Machine Tool Business Unit (Elk Grove Village, IL). "It mimics the tool magazine and it includes drills, taps, end mills, shape tools, face mills, probing--all the tooling types are graphically displayed. You give it the length and the diameter and it shows you a picture of what the tool looks like, so when you go through the tool table, you're not just looking at the number of the tool, you see the tool that you're looking for."

Speeding shop-floor programming and setups is a big key with the new software, Pearson says. "Another thing we've added is a new feature, the cycle and parts counter that does a utilization factor of program run time versus actual machining," Pearson adds, "so users can get their cycle time, actual machining time, and it gives a breakdown of the machine utilization. With this, they can track why a part took so long, and maybe look at it a little further and try to increase their efficiency."

The new software runs under Windows XP Professional, which features enhancements for easier networking setups, he adds, and the package also supports USB ports on the front of the control panel for easy plug-and-play connectivity with part programs produced off-line. An update to the 2-D and wireframe simulation previously provided, the program's new 3-D simulation capability also enables users real-time views of the cutting process.

Customized software controls enable software developer Manufacturing Data Systems Inc. (MDSI; Ann Arbor, MI) to offer customers a more flexible solution specific to users' needs, notes Michael Mason, managing director. In the past year, the company has updated its Maximum Factory version 2.0.1 factory utilization software, as well as its flagship open-architecture control, OpenCNC, which will be enhanced with Version 6.5 due out this month.

"One of the markets for us that we see is in custom controls, where the larger control manufacturers don't have the flexibility that we do. We can offer a tailored solution to the machine-tool manufacturers," Mason says. "The flexibility of OpenCNC has always been in software and hardware, because the software provides the flexibility to pick and choose the hardware that you'd like."

With Version 6.5, OpenCNC includes custom functions targeting users' specific needs (see sidebar page 69). "We've extended the product several other ways internally to be able to support things that we find that our customers need," notes Bruce E. Nourse, MDSI vice president, R&D. "We've written a series of turning macros, which allow you to do the typical thing of defining a stock boundary and a part boundary, and it automatically does a roughing cycle and a finishing cycle. We also have a grooving capability, which is similar to the roughing and finishing cycle except it's deliberately set up to do the right kind of things for making cuts in the part which have an aspect ratio that is deep. The idea there is to automate as much as possible, so the user has to provide the least amount of definition and he gets the maximum work for it."

At WESTEC, controls supplier Heidenhain Corp. (Shaumburg, IL) introduced a new programming interface aimed at easing the upgrade path to its iTNC 530 contouring control for users with analog drives and motors, notes product manager Chris Weber. Heidenhain also offers the SmarT.NC user interface, an updated version of its NC programming for use by both NC beginners and conversational programming experts. The interface allows users to create executable NC programs faster and easier with its plain-language editor.

With the recent introduction of MTX IndraControl from Bosch Rexroth Corp. Electric Drives & Controls (Hoffman Estates, IL), users get a completely updated open-architecture solution featuring a PC card inside an HMI unit, according to Rick Rey, IndraDrive and IndraControl product manager.

The revamped Windows PC-based IndraControl employs PLCs operating under the VXWorks real-time operating system. "The IndraWorks platform is the basis of our PLC in our new product line, and IndraWorks will be used across all of the Rexroth control systems, whether it be a PC control, a hardware-based control such as the MTX, or our servodrive control," notes Rey. The new control is a scaleable solution that includes the company's IndraControl V HMI unit in a new industrial computer.

Conversational programming capabilities can offer users a control system that can be adapted easily to their specific application, according to Todd Drane of Fagor Automation Corp. (Elk Grove Village, IL, and Mondragón, Spain). With its recent software additions, Fagor has included custom functions and softkeys to enable users to optimize their applications.

"Custom operator modes dramatically increase machine cutting time simply because the operators and programmers are spending less time creating G-code programs and more time executing them," Drane notes. "Any company involved in high-production parts machining would benefit greatly from a custom on-board application mode."With systems like key-based conversational programming, operators can quickly press the appropriate key for the operation they wish to perform, he adds. Fagor also offers a dual-operating system capability that allows users to switch back and forth between G-code and conversational programming modes.                                      


Open Control Cuts Costs, Boosts

When Great Lakes Industries (GLI; Jackson, MI) retrofitted its first CNC lathe with OpenCNC software from Manufacturing Data Systems Inc. (MDSI, Ann Arbor, MI), the impact was almost immediate. Downtime and repair costs dropped dramatically using MDSI's OpenCNC, a software-based CNC that works with commercially available PC technology.A manufacturer of gears and sprockets for companies including John Deere and CNH, Great Lakes Industries runs an agile shop to keep pace with production demands. The shop floor is organized in several machining cells that perform three to four setups daily. The average lot size is about 200 pieces, organized by machine capability, part size/weight, and operations required.                   

In cells, which often include turret lathes, vertical mills, and turning machines, GLI makes use of equipment in its second life. "Before we installed OpenCNC, we had several machine tools that still made good parts, but they had obsolete controls," says Rick Stafford, automation engineer. "We couldn't afford new machines, but control repair costs and downtime were major roadblocks to meeting our commitments.

"Now we are using OpenCNC on 95% of the machines at GLI: lathes and loaders, VMCs, four-axis hobber, six-axis welder, and induction heat treater, and we have written the code to allow OpenCNC to do that," Stafford adds. "Buying a new heat treat machine would have cost twice what we invested in the used unit and the MDSI control. We also upgraded the equipment, replacing a motor with a servo for accurately controlled speed, positioning, and scanning. This provides us the versatility to process different gear sizes and shapes more uniformly."

GLI automated its lathes with two and three-axis gantry loaders controlled with the MDSI control, which frees the operator to run four or five machines rather than just one or two, according to Stafford. The retrofit resulted in a huge boost in production per employee and provided significant ergonomic and safety benefits compared to manually handling 40 lb [18-kg] parts, 300 per shift, he adds.

"Uptime is much higher now--up 20 to 50% or more--and we can troubleshoot ourselves rather than waiting for an outside vendor," Stafford states. "Where we had machines with a two-minute cycle time, after retrofitting with OpenCNC we have realized up to a 100% increase in productivity. It enables us to buy machines with obsolete controls, retrofit them and make them operational for one-tenth their original cost."                   


 This article was first published in the August 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 


Published Date : 8/1/2005

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