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Digital Tool Management: Multiple Concepts Begin to Converge

By Frank Burke Contributing Editor, SME Media
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Customer demand for systems offering greater efficiency, more flexibility and, when necessary, multiple vendor relationships is driving digital tool management development.

The focus on digitalization in design and machining has highlighted the importance and advantages of more sophisticated digital tool management (DTM) systems. While this has generated a great degree of differentiation, and some confusion regarding a generally accepted system definition, it has resulted in the evolution of objectives and capabilities that are both more comprehensive and more customer-centric.

While many earlier developments in manufacturing involving both hardware and software were marked by corporate rivalries among builders and developers that hampered the process, advances in tool management systems have been much more cooperative and thereby faster and more effective.

Among the drivers impacting DTM development are: the need for tool management in automated systems and increasingly in small- to medium-lot complex part production at the job shop level; the establishment of standards such as ISO 13399; cooperative programs such as MTConnect and several subprograms under the umbrella of Industry 4.0; and customer demand for systems offering greater efficiency, more flexibility and, when necessary, multiple vendor relationships.

At present, system offerings range from individual modules performing limited functions to overall packages extending from the CAM station to the shop floor. Corsin Buerer, start-up lead, manufacturing data management at Siemens PLM Software (Plano, TX), stated, “We see DTM as a key component of the total information system, including software to organize the various aspects of tooling requirements, the ability to answer the needs of automation and a capability to integrate tooling into the CAM function. Of course, because of the range of customers we serve, we have to be able to offer a wide selection of configurations that adapt to individual manufacturer needs.”

Alexander Zoller, president of Zoller Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI), visualizes the DTM system as a “digital twin” for all relevant manufacturing processes. “Our system includes a digital twin tooling library, as well as complete machining/tooling functional information, which includes the machine, the toolholder, the tool spec, geometry and any other data required throughout the process. Information has to be available to everyone, from the CAM programmer to production management.”

In assessing the features that will be crucial to new DTM systems, Jeff Rizzie, director, digital machining sales, Americas, for Sandvik Coromant (Fair Lawn, NJ), takes a broad perspective. “While many manufacturers typically start with a basic min/max system to replenish tools, we see the development of full-function systems as essential to the future. In building these systems, our main goal is to offer better ways of providing data based on how that information will be consumed by the customer.”

Customer sensitivity is critical to the process. “Our offerings include complete integration of all information and processes related to the manufacturing process,” said Gregg Bigleman, director, North America, for TDM Systems (Schaumburg, IL). “This will enable business to more easily transition to intelligent digital-linked production. The critical element is that everything comes from a single-source database.”

The availability of tool data is likewise seen as essential by Tyler Martin, STEP technician at Seco Tools LLC (Troy, MI). “The easy availability of data is critical. We make our tool information available through modules that can be downloaded from the cloud. Our compliance with ISO 13399 assures customers that the correct information will be there when they need it and [be] easy to understand.”

Walter AG (Tübingen, Germany) was an early advocate for tool management systems and today offers full service capability to larger customers. Florian Böpple, manager of digital manufacturing, commented, “Our early efforts at tool management included vending machines. Today, our logistics systems enable us to partner with a company by integrating a total package that enables them to offload the tool management function. In the highest expansion state, we place people full-time at the customers and purchase all tools—even some from competitors. We take care of presetting, technical operation and optimization on machines. This enables the manufacturer to concentrate on their core business and leave tool management in the hands of professionals.”

As a response vehicle, DTM will evolve in a manner that combines advances in manufacturing and the vision of involved tooling companies. As Alexander Zoller succinctly put it, “Functionally, there’ll be a new system every year.”

TDM System’s Bigleman stressed the need to “connect multiple facilities anywhere in the world,” which will provide ongoing efficiencies. At Siemens, Buerer, senior product marketing manager, stressed the logical progression of DTM from its beginnings: “We’ve moved up from the development of a digital tool library to systems devoted to physical tool management. This would include both the location of any tool within the manufacturing process as well as tools in inventory, because this poses continuous challenges in an ongoing production environment.”

Rizzie of Sandvik Coromant also cited the path of system development. “Historically, tool management systems were based on static calculations of tool inventories and corresponding updates. In the modern environment, this is obsolete and we have to move to dynamic trending from real-time data, including on-machine status. In effect, we’re moving from discrete to interactive systems.”

Walter is working toward a multi-channel concept through the use of tool management “cockpits.” Böpple explained: “A cockpit will develop a report for management on economies over time to define definitive savings in the overall process by establishing a baseline of performance. Clearly, it’s not up to the customer to know the logistical tool data. By incorporating our expertise, we can provide more meaningful and effective information, especially when it comes to the machining process. A further cockpit will provide us at Walter with the performance data that will enable us to improve tool performance.”

Customer Inputs and Demands

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Digital tool management systems offered by industry suppliers, such as CoroPlus ToolLibrary from Sandvik Coromant (shown here), will help manufacturers transition to the digital age.

Significant factors in the improvement of digital tool management systems are customer inputs and demands. The synthesis resulting from customer needs and tool manufacturers’ experience is emerging as perhaps the most significant contributor to expanding the more standard capabilities of DTM systems.

Martin of Seco Tools cited the request for improved tool data libraries applicable to CAM systems. “CAM capability will be absolutely necessary for tool management systems to achieve their full potential.”
Said Zoller, “Customers begin by looking at the big picture, then ask us to work with them in developing specific solutions. For instance, there is generally a perceived waste in time spent searching for particular tools. By introducing adequate controls, we can solve that problem. We’re also seeing other requests for 3D applications, as well as mobile capabilities that can communicate via cell phone and tablet.”

The new customer considering DTM installation brings several demands, which can be answered in a variety of ways. Said Bigleman of TDM Systems, “Customers today are always looking to expand and include more of their manufacturing process into DTM systems. Thus, the potential new customer can enter the digital manufacturing environment anywhere in the process through the use of simple “bolt-on” enhancements. Once the initial steps have been taken, it’s possible to expand upstream or downstream without losing any data or efficiency.”

Rizzie agreed. “At Sandvik Coromant, we’re looking toward a starter platform that enables the connection of additional applications. In this context, however, it’s necessary for the vendor to prove the manner in which each new application adds to the value stream.”

While the initial development phase of DTM has largely been the province of major OEMs and correspondingly large tooling manufacturers, the industry is likewise populated by a multitude of smaller tooling companies, many of which maintain both sales and advisory relationships with end users, especially job shops and smaller manufacturers. The move toward digitalization necessarily raises the question of what will happen to those resources.

Walter’s Böpple sees a coming “shakeout” due as much to standardization as to DTM. “There’s been an ongoing struggle between low-level suppliers and premium suppliers. Those on the lower end are really not motivated to move into systems in any capacity. Their greatest threat comes from the fact that tools, especially on the commodity level, are becoming more and more alike.”

Zoller envisions a place for smaller companies, provided they fulfill key requirements. “The smaller companies have to become more efficient. We see an opportunity for them in covering the smaller customer base in partnership with firms like ours. In fact, they fill out our catalog and database.”

A number of service companies filling the gap between larger DTM providers and small tooling manufacturers is also likely to increase. According to Buerer, “Companies that are serious about maintaining their position and even growing will be able to access suppliers that can augment their data. In addition, small manufacturers that specialize in certain tooling disciplines, such as thread milling, will also find a niche and will have the added advantage of partnering with larger companies providing DTM.”

A significant factor in the survival and growth of smaller manufacturers is cited by Martin. “These companies can not only graft onto existing systems in a form of partnership, but thanks to the cloud, their service capability will become more extended and efficient.”

Further support for the smaller tool suppliers will come in the form of the open platform strategies incorporated by several major players. “We are ‘brand agnostic,’” stated Rizzie. “Any tool can connect within our system. I think all of the majors will eventually find this to be the case thanks to such overall programs as ISO 13399 and MTConnect.”

The leadership in DTM shown by the major tool manufacturers and their customers, as well as their differing operational philosophies and features, raises the question of scalability. The extent to which more comprehensive systems can be edited to more compact configurations, or modularized, is dependent largely on their inherent objectives and original development.

Böpple noted the high degree of differentiation. “The most effective DTM systems are by definition comprehensive and, as such, are less available to smaller companies. This will continue to be the case as major companies want systems that are capable of immediate implementation and that require not only an extensive blueprint but possibly key modifications. Smaller companies can implement modules in a piecemeal fashion, but in all honesty that is not a holistic system.”

Martin foresees that “as more protocols become standard, more aspects of DTM will become available to smaller operations.” The fact that Seco Tools’ system originated as a combination of multiple components derived from an extensive and diversified tool library makes the systems, in the words of Buerer, “very scalable.”

Need for a Long-Term Plan

Bigleman cited the importance of a long-term plan in the development of any system. “Each of our proposals is specifically developed for the individual customer based on their needs. It can start simple and have a phased implementation plan or incorporate an overall approach from the start.”

Rizzie takes a different approach and envisions a flexible, multi-tiered path whereby small to medium sized DTM packages incorporating standardized components will be available to meet the needs of smaller operations.

A growing variety of systems, modules and approaches likewise raises the question of implementation, which can be a deciding factor when it comes to a customer’s purchasing decision. Böpple cites the importance of comprehensive planning for DTM success. “We advise our customers to envision where they want to be—and that goes far beyond tool management. From the overall plan, we derive a strategy, then choose and incorporate the best partners and implement the solution. We caution our customers not to be afraid to make changes or to be overwhelmed by excess data. Results are infinitely preferable to confusion.”

Martin recommends incorporating the entire system at once: “This makes sense not only from an operational viewpoint but from a financial one. By opting for a one-time cost, the customer avoids unanticipated add-ons and extras.”

“A cautious approach regarding heavy internal involvement on the part of the customer is mandatory,” stated Zoller. “It is most important to put a team in place. This not only saves time but enables the people most familiar with the processes to take an internal view. Then, prioritize key areas and implement in stages.”

Buerer advocates a paradigm shift for major companies and a “start and then expand” strategy for smaller ones. “The success of a large system is heavily dependent on preparation and training, and people find it much more logical to grasp the entire concept at once. Where this is not financially or operationally possible, we recommend starting with a particular department or set of machines, learning about the system and defining the desired eventual result, and then expanding out from there.”

Influence of Industry 4.0

It is clear that Industry 4.0 initiatives are a primary force behind the adoption of DTM. The speed and extent with which it is implemented varies depending upon the urgency of the user to conform to the protocols.

When it comes to expansion, Buerer sees the need for systems that move beyond just the tooling. “If companies wish to increase automation capability, they must subscribe to the need for DTM. Further, the digital systems cannot stop at tools but must also include fixture and gauge management.”

Zoller sees DTM as “exactly a fit in 4.0 initiatives. The only effective way to utilize all resources is through a shared system. This promotes the efficiency that positively affects the balance sheet—expenses are driving the tool room of today and we are moving toward a fully automated robotic tool room.”
According to Martin, “The fully digitalized manufacturing system must of necessity be holistic in nature. DTM is a critical part of the mix. Subscribers are serious about Industry 4.0.”

Noted Rizzie, “At the heart of Industry 4.0 is the concept of connectivity. Tool management must be interconnected to provide the dynamic data that records and ultimately will impact everything from optimized cycles to tool life.”

While there is general agreement on the need for DTM, the differing interpretations of how such systems should be constructed and implemented and what they should include naturally lead to a visualization of where such protocols will be in the near- to mid-term future. A further factor involves the ways in which the system will encompass or adjust to new and non-traditional methods, materials and technologies.

Bigleman foresees a revolution in communications: “In the near term, there can be no more ‘silos.’ Communication must be clear and industry needs to embrace the idea of transparent communications in all processes, systems and departments. As new technologies emerge, providers will develop the software and hardware that connects them all.”

Zoller foresees “a continued development of DTM systems that will naturally embrace new materials and technology, especially as related to the ability of customers to manufacture their own tools.”

Böpple believes that near-term leadership in Industry 4.0 in the metal-cutting industry will be provided by larger OEMs and tooling companies and aim for tool optimization as the primary goal. “The tool manufacturer must assist in the process flow, from CAM, planning, procurement and application. This will make it easier to find the best tool more efficiently—even if that entails a global product search as we are providing it through the use of GPS.”

With regard to new technologies, he foresees more printing of workpieces, especially in the automotive and aerospace industries, with an emphasis on lighter weight and improved metal structure. However, conventional tools will continue to be required.

“As some customers develop the ability to create their own semi-finished workpieces, they must at the same time determine what methods and tools will be used in the finishing process,” said Böpple. “For most customers, that will still apply also for the roughing process, especially since the complexity of machining keeps increasing due to new materials and alloys. Such a task requires extensive
experience and knowledge, and with many experts reaching retirement age, it will be crucial to train new people.”

According to Buerer, “Near term, DTM systems will be called on to provide more 3D data, as well as simulation capabilities. Much of the 3D data will have to come from tool manufacturers who will work with customers to optimize feeds and speeds, minimize inventory and open the door to greater feedback from tools and machining processes.”

An increased emphasis on fast data creation and/or retrieval is key, according to Martin. As to new technologies, he believes that “because the cost of entry is very high, incorporating advanced additive manufacturing will not be economically feasible for most customers. Given the input required in terms of hardware, software and people, the development of highly specialized tools would best be done in partnership with tool manufacturers.”

Rizzie observed that connectivity at all levels will be the main thrust of DTM in the near- to mid-term. “Accelerated connectivity will, in a number of cases, define the need for specialized tooling, which in some instances require printing. The crucial factor here involves the development of materials that can deliver the best results.”

The many divergent directions in DTM indicate that rigid protocols are inappropriate. In a dynamic manufacturing environment characterized by revolutionary designs, new and in some cases customized materials, and methods and machines unheard of a short time ago, the traditional definition of “tool” has widened. Likewise, the optimized use of all inputs and assets in manufacturing requires systems that can accommodate both interactive and discreet functions. As Rizzie observed, “With digital, we’re moving from tribal knowledge to system knowledge.”

Although an increasing segment of the manufacturing community acknowledges the need for and inevitability of DTM systems, the understanding of how those protocols will be defined, implemented, and ultimately used varies widely. While standards including ISO 13399, Industry 4.0, and MTConnect have contributed some degree of structure, much debate continues as to what the system should include (just tools or tools, fixtures, and ancillary equipment), who should be responsible for the ongoing management of the system (facility personnel vs. tooling manufacturers/ suppliers), how far DTM should functionally extend and what departments should be included (manufacturing operations, finance, management), and how the system should evolve from implementation into the future.

What could once have been envisioned as a more sophisticated version of the tool room is further complicated by the rapid acceleration in the development of manufacturing technologies and the challenge presented by entirely new alternatives, including additive manufacturing and nanotechnology, that are blurring the definition of what constitutes a tool.

Out of the many strands of this disruptive technology, it seems as though DTM systems will of necessity be highly customized and continually evolving based on factors including the nature of parts and materials, the extent of automation, and the desired results. Clearly, modularization will continue to play a major part.

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