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Connecting the Dots in Manufacturing

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media

Weaving disparate manufacturing systems into a cohesive digital thread

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Full digital tool information can help deliver safer, more efficient cutting motion, as shown in this delicate turning example from Mastercam.

Before Industry 4.0, it didn’t matter that the CAM software didn’t talk to the ERP system, or that the CNC machine tools were mute. Islands of information were acceptable back then. When discrepancies between a shop’s different software systems were found—duplicate part numbers, missing information, and inaccurate data, to name a few—they were often met with a shrug, perhaps a correction, and the person who noticed it went back to whatever it was they were doing.

Some of this laissez-faire attitude was due to an inability to share information among the shop’s many systems. That, and unless any missing or erroneous data directly impacted your job responsibilities, it was easy enough to say, “That’s their problem.” Nor was anyone particularly interested in all that the machine shop’s lathes and machining centers had to say (which, in all fairness, wasn’t much back then) as long as they remained operational.

That’s all changed over the past few years.

Sharing Data is Caring

MTConnect has become the defacto standard for machine tool communications, while the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) promises to make everything from calipers to kitchen blenders “smart.” At the same time, software developers have gone to great lengths to make their wares interoperable, to the point that customers have come to expect some level of data sharing, if not complete two-way integration. Industry 4.0, it seems, has become an accepted part of the manufacturing landscape.

Or has it? Big data and smart devices aside, chances are excellent that you’re making good parts and shipping them on time, just as you have since the company first opened. “We’re plugging along just fine, thank you,” you might say. So why bother with software integration and robust IT infrastructures and the cloud?

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In this example, VERICUT Force optimization and chart are used in a milling operation on an aerospace bracket.

The answer is simple. Embracing Industry 4.0 means greater manufacturing efficiency. It means predictive maintenance and predictable processes, and the ability to know at any given time where a job is running, when it will be finished, and whether you’re about to run out of ½" carbide end mills. But it also means you’ll need to rethink a few things, starting with your tooling.

Organize Data With Metadata

Rich Taft, product manager at Mastercam developer CNC Software Inc., Tolland, Conn., said he’s excited over recent developments in CAD/CAM, tool data, and visualization, among others. Solid models have replaced simple wireframe representations. Extensive tool libraries are available, as is the ability to detect collisions and non-productive machining time. Perhaps the most significant advance, however, is the increased use of metadata. It means “data about data” and is a term that’s used abundantly on the Internet. In machine shops? Not so much. 

“Aside from the CAD model itself, there’s a host of information available to make programming and related manufacturing steps easier,” he said. “Metadata might include the tool manufacturer, the carbide grade, feed and speed recommendations, historical usage, alternate tools, and so on. The challenge has always been where to find this information and, once you have it, deciding what to do with it.”

Taft is quick to point out that Mastercam is capable of storing metadata in the tool libraries mentioned earlier, thus solving the second problem. As to the first—where to find metadata-rich tool models—he points to online resources such as MachiningCloud and Kennametal’s NOVO, both of which offer useful application information. They also make it easy to construct virtual tool assemblies that can then be pulled into CAM software, and either stored in a local tool library or left in the cloud until needed again.

Interoperability like this has become much easier of late thanks to the standardization of tool data, namely the ISO 13399 standard for cutting tool data representation and exchange.

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An operator uses Zoller TMS Tool Management Solutions software, which is connected to the physical cabinets in which tools are stored.

“If your shop has multiple CAM packages, for example, or you’re using toolpath simulation software, those systems can all consume the same data now,” Taft said. “Programmers no longer have to define tools in multiple software packages, greatly shortening the learning curve while reducing the chance of error. It also makes it easier for users of MachiningCloud, NOVO, and CoroPlus [another online resource]. Since everything is now standardized, the AI behind these systems is better able to filter out what is not needed for the current job. The result is that tool selection and assembly have become more intuitive.”

Closing The Machining Loop

Gene Granata, VERICUT product manager at CGTech, Irvine, Calif., agreed on the need for seamless data exchange, noting that the benefits extend well beyond the programming department. “Robust connectivity means the ability to share information with the shop floor, the engineering group, and even the front office,” he said. “This might be a report that shows the machinist how to set up a job or a diagram that the tool crib can reference to assemble the toolholders and cutting tools. Whatever the case, the goal is getting the real world to line up with the virtual one, and then using that digital twin to improve part quality, tool life, and productivity.”

Like others interviewed for this article, Granata is a big fan of MachiningCloud. That’s because the 3D models found there—for cutting tools and toolholders, vises, rotary tables, and even machine tools—are a necessary component of toolpath simulation and optimization, and the more accessible and accurate these models are, the more likely it is that CGTech’s customers will achieve higher levels of success. And Granata noted—like CNC Software’s Taft—that the increasing amount of metadata made available through MachiningCloud and its partner network is a game changer for several reasons.

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This G-code verification in the Digital Twin Machine provided by NCSIMUL includes detailed cutting tool information from Machining Cloud.

“Because you can pull down application-related data along with dimensional information, and cutting tools with usage guidelines, it helps to streamline toolpath optimization, like that available with our Force product,” Granata said. “That’s why we’re letting our customers know during webinars and our user exchanges that there’s a lot of intelligence available on these systems, and recommend that they bring it into their CAM systems and optimization software to begin leveraging it.”

Tools For Storing Data

Granata and other sources raised another important point: where’s the best place to store all this information, the cloud, CAM, or VERICUT? As it turns out, there’s a fourth choice, one with which many offline presetter users are already familiar.

“Most shops have multiple seats of CAM software, some use multiple systems, and an increasing number have toolpath simulation software,” said Cedric Hasenfratz, national sales manager for the TMS Tool Management Solutions product line at Zoller Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich. “And all too often, you’ll find that each programmer is going his or her own way, storing the same cutting tools and toolholders on their local system and not sharing it with those around them. The result is wasted effort, data duplication and, quite possibly, inaccurate information.”

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Getting started with MachiningCloud requires nothing more than an Internet connection and login. Once there, you have access to information from 75 (and counting) tooling, software, and machine tool partners.

The solution, he said, is tool management such as that offered by TMS Tool Management Solutions. Zoller offers three levels of TMS software—Bronze, Silver, and Gold—all of which provide a direct interface to Mastercam, VERICUT, and MachiningCloud (among others), as well as a centralized database for tooling data.

“Even our entry-level system gives shops a way to get all their tools organized and their information cleaned up,” said Hasenfratz. “And when they get to the point where they need features like tool life management and integration to the shop’s ERP system, they can always move up to one of our higher-level packages. The important thing is that they get started, because the longer they wait, the bigger the cleanup task will be later on.”

Building Complete Data Packages

Hasenfratz encourages shops of all sizes to attend one of his Advanced Manufacturing Techniques seminars, where he and various partners discuss how to achieve a “streamlined, end-to-end production process.” One of the people you might see there is Silvere Proisy, general manager for NCSIMUL at Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, Boston, who outlined another common but unfortunate machine shop situation.

“What happens sometimes is the programmer will only define what he or she needs to generate the toolpaths—the cutting tool,” he said. “The program then moves over to the tool crib or gets sent to the shop floor, and it’s up to someone else to decide on the toolholders, the extensions, the vises, and whatever else is needed to set up the machine. If the shop is well-organized, however, the programmer will either download these things from MachiningCloud or import them from their tool management system, program the part, simulate it in NCSIMUL, and then send the verified job and tool list to the crib for offline presetting.”

Christophe Rogazy is in full agreement. The principal product manager at Camarillo, Calif.-based MachiningCloud Inc., he noted that getting started requires nothing more than an Internet connection.

“Once you have an account, you can search among 75 (and counting) tooling, software, and machine tool partners, then download zip files containing 2D and 3D models, XML files, application data such as feeds and speeds, and whatever else the supplier has made available,” he said. “This data can be imported directly into most CAD/CAM and toolpath simulation systems, as well as TMS packages like Zoller and WinTool. And some systems—DP Esprit, for example—will populate the application parameters from MachiningCloud automatically.”

MachiningCloud also allows users to assemble their toolholders online, and either store them there in a private account or download them to the shop’s software systems. Whatever the case, having a single source of the “tooling truth” is a necessary first step on the Industry 4.0 path, one that will simplify and streamline machining operations. “You don’t need to be a big shop to use MachiningCloud, or have multiple software systems, or a sophisticated IT landscape,” Rogazy said. “Shops of all sizes and needs will benefit from its use. All you have to do is log on and get to work.”

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