For most of its history in manufacturing, metrology’s competitive arena was at the point of measurement: As companies vied for bragging rights in the areas of accuracy, speed and reliability, where the gage or probe met the part was where the rubber met the road, competitively speaking. But that is no longer entirely the case.
First, in pursuit of leaner manufacturing and considering the total cost of production, there is a new focus on tightly integrating part measurement with part production. And, more recently, new emphasis has been placed on efficiently codifying, sharing and putting the measurement data to good use throughout the manufacturing enterprise.
In other words, metrology tech firms have had to greatly broaden their areas of expertise in order to be competitive in the age of Industry 4.0. Many have been working in this newer arena for decades. But as networking technology improves and propagates, they endeavor to keep up.
For example, two companies have recently released new editions of their smart-manufacturing systems. In each case, the systems are less about simply measuring parts than about using those measurements to improve processes.
In December, Starrett released DataSure 4.0, an updated version of a system the company first released in 2005. It’s a wireless data-collection system for acquiring precision measurement data. The system operates on a wireless networking platform that uses short-wave radio frequencies to interconnect cell phones, computers and wireless electronic devices.
"The underlying principle of DataSure 4.0 is to enable manufacturers to accurately and consistently acquire large amounts of measurement data for meeting Industry 4.0 requirements,” said Jeff Wilkinson, Starrett’s director of R&D.
Wilkinson pointed out the advantages over manual entry of data. “When employees have to repeatedly stop work to record a measurement, productivity is impacted,” he said. “Also, manual data collection processes, typing it in by hand that is, is far from perfect. People make mistakes—with consequences downstream, eventually. With the DataSure program, just pressing a button transmits the measurement data--saving time and increasing accuracy.”
The system automates much of the quality-control measurement data collection process, improving process efficiency and the accuracy of measurements captured. Features like automatic time stamping provide critical context about each data point, required for traceability and compliance to quality control/production specifications, he said. For assurance, DataSure immediately sends a message back to the measuring tool confirming receipt.
A major feature of the 4.0 version is its scalability, Wilkinson said. New network topologies can be configured to many simple or complex situations, and remote gateways can be used to distribute them.
“After the launch of our original system back in 2005, we learned over time from customers that it can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said. “As a result, our newest solution is scalable. It also allows for even more portable operation by enabling the system to communicate with consumer devices such as smart phones and tablets that can hold the data.”
Data is transmitted from gages that have either built-in radio transmitters or externally mounted end nodes to gateways and is operable on Android or iOS mobile platforms and Windows-based computers, including laptops, desktop PCs, thin client PCs and servers, he said. The modular structure makes it simple to expand or contract a quality control measurement data collection process without having to acquire a new data collection system.
“We’re not trying to dictate how manufacturers set up their networks,” Wilkinson said. “We’re trying to be as flexible as possible to account for as many possible scenarios as there are use cases.”
Those can range from just one or a few measuring tools over short distances to configurations that have many measuring tools located hundreds of yards apart in a large factory—or spread out over a mile in multiple facilities.
“Data can be transmitted literally hundreds of yards, which is ideal in larger manufacturing operations or multiple facilities,” he said, asserting that the range of DataSure 4.0 is “10 to 20 times that of any data-collection system on the market.”
The system is built on a highly secure proprietary wireless platform. Transported data is encrypted using a multi-layered approach that absolutely prevents any outside access to the data, whether passive or active.
“Security is a growing concern for the manufacturers we work with,” said Starrett product manager Tim Cucchi. “Any kind of radio that talks to a computer is a potential worry for IT professionals and quality assurance people. And while no system is immune to attacks, we went to great pains to put in a proprietary, multi-layer security approach, which includes encryption and other things.”
DataSure is compatible with all Starrett electronic digital gages, as well as electronic gages of other tool manufacturers, including Mitutoyo, Sylvac, Fowler, Bowers and CDI Tools.
Last fall, Hexagon released a second version of its Q-DAS IMC intelligent machine control software, which incorporates improvements developed through consultation with users of the earlier version.
Q-DAS IMC enables communication between machine tools and the Q-DAS database. It can manage different machine tools, measuring projects and feature information.
The SPC (statistical process control) software is “used to collect the data that’s being gathered from the measurement systems and to analyze it and help users make judgments about their manufacturing process. Judgments based on statistics that are applied to those measurement results,” Hexagon’s Scott Mahrle said.
“It creates reports that include statistical results that allow engineers to make decisions about the manufacturing process,” he added.
The software forms the basis for improving data use within manufacturing processes and enables manufacturers to gain detailed insights into data and analyze the history to improve future processes.
Mahrle offered the example of machine-tool wear and how measuring part accuracy can lead to understanding the best time and best way to compensate for tool wear. The IMC software is not doing the measuring of the machined part. Rather, it is analyzing those measurements.
“Traditionally an engineer looks at measurement results on paper or on a computer screen and says, ‘Okay, I can see that the machine accuracy seems to be trending in this direction, and so my parts are going to be out of tolerance soon,’ right? These tend to be intuitive judgments made by a human engineer, whereas with the IMC software, judgment is made automatically, based on statistics,” he said. “It’s using a more consistent method to apply the same algorithm each time.”
Because the tool-wear compensation is based on statistics rather than human decisions alone, the result is a more stable process with longer tool life and fewer rejected parts.
“The user is spending less time making those kinds of judgments and making those adjustments to the machine tool himself and just letting the statistics do that job.”
The second version of the program offers improvements meant to increase ease of use and the number of machine-tool types it can work with.
Operators no longer have to make manual corrections directly on machine tools. With introduction of the “manual correction” mode, machine operators can easily correct tools in what Mahrle calls a user-friendly software environment: The machine operator can select the tools to be corrected in the software and enter the correction values for each tool. In the background, Q-DAS IMC checks the input for incorrect entries. The entered correction value is also checked against reaction limits so incorrect entries are identified.
"Previously, such input was made directly in the tool table of the controller without this check, increasing the risk of a tool crash or breakage,” he said. “This new function therefore improves production safety. In addition, the operator can store events behind the manual correction in order to document the correction. This ensures quick and easy traceability. Tracking helps even inexperienced machine operators to learn from experienced colleagues and to see why corrections are made, and a knowledge database is created for each worker.”
The other improvement is allowing the system to be compatible for use with a wider range of machine tools. The second version of Q-DAS IMC works with Siemens, FANUC or Heidenhain machine-tool controllers. Mahrle said the ability to use the system with a wider range of equipment is in line with a company-wide imperative to make it easier for customers to take steps into smart manufacturing.
“This is really important because we have a goal of helping customers leverage the equipment and technology that they already have. We’re not coming in and saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to revamp everything, dump all of your old equipment in order to implement this new system.’ We want to make our technology adaptable to systems that are already in place.
“In a lot of cases, this means adapting it to legacy equipment because manufacturing equipment lasts for a long time,” he said. “We think it’s really up to the software to adapt to the equipment. And that’s what version two of IMC is all about.”
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