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The Connected Control

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media

The Internet and cloud-based computing are changing how manufacturers operate CNC machine tools. Is your shop ready for it?

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FANUC offers two data analytics programs, MT-LINKi and FASData (shown here), both able to capture vast amounts of machine tool data.

Ethernet ports first started appearing on CNC lathes and machining centers more than 20 years ago. The MTConnect machine tool communication standard made its official U.S. debut at the 2010 IMTS in Chicago. Manufacturers began talking about cloud computing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) shortly afterward, terms that would become mainstream when German economist Klaus Schwab published a paper in 2015 stating that the world had entered a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Welcome to 2021. It should be evident by now to machine shop owners, CNC programmers, and manufacturing engineers that the machining industry has changed significantly over the past two decades. CNC machine tools are far smarter than they once were, able to generate significant amounts of data about all that’s going on behind the glass. Manufacturing software has also gotten smarter, offering interoperability and cloud-based capabilities only dreamed of at the turn of the century.

Whether all of this technical wizardry is a good thing or not is up for debate. Some might argue that life on the shop floor is already challenging enough—who needs Big Data and smart machinery when there are barely enough hours in the day to get parts out the door? Others see Industry 4.0 and all that it entails as the clear path forward for manufacturers, and anyone who doesn’t embrace it will soon be out of business.

Gaining FOCAS

The truth lies somewhere in between. Paul Webster, director of F.A. Engineering at FANUC America Corp., headquartered in Rochester Hills, Mich., noted that CNC machine tools have been network- and Internet-ready since before Y2K. Shops choosing to ignore this capability are still chugging along just fine, thank you, and will continue to do so for years to come. And yet, few would argue that machine tool connectivity and the greater visibility to machining processes thus enabled is never a bad thing, and may make the difference between a profitable job and one you’d just as soon forget.

“We introduced our FOCAS API (application programming interface) in the early 90s, as well as fiber optic and then Ethernet ports, so connecting a CNC has been easy for quite some time now,” he said. “The hard part has always been figuring out what data you need and what you’re going to do with it once you have it.”

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Heidenhain customers can install the company’s StateMonitor software on their corporate network or in the cloud, although the company suggests that “on-prem” installations are more secure.

This data includes alarm histories, feed rate and spindle override settings, servo motor and spindle temperatures, power consumption, macro variables, and much more, all of which can be pulled from the machine tool on a continuous and automatic basis. Add to this various operator-supplied inputs—job number, production status, cutting tool consumption, and even part quality information—and gaining a complete picture of shop floor activities becomes no more difficult than glancing at the dashboard of whatever monitoring software gathers this data.

In FANUC’s case, this is MT-LINKi, a brand-agnostic analytics platform able to monitor more than 1,000 CNC machine tools at once, as well as FASData, a production monitoring program. Other control builders offer similar solutions, as do many machine tool builders, cutting tool suppliers, and third-party software developers. All provide the means to gather what is admittedly a mountain of data and present it in a way that makes sense to humans, giving them the ability to react to trends and potential problems long before they can negatively impact production levels.

The Cloud Conundrum

The question then becomes where is the best place to store this data and house the software used to analyze it? Should both be located in the cloud at an off-site hosting facility and managed by dedicated hardware and software specialists? Or is an “on-premise” installation more appropriate, using whatever internal IT talent the shop possesses?

Webster and the others interviewed for this article largely agreed that, while the former is often the more secure and cost-effective approach, many shops remain skittish about part programs and production data leaving their facility. So does Gisbert Ledvon, director of business development for machine tools at Schaumburg, Ill.-based Heidenhain Corp. He noted that customers can install the company’s StateMonitor software wherever they wish, but promotes onsite installations whenever possible.

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Real-time machine condition and part quality monitoring is just one of the many benefits offered by Siemens Industry’s SINUMERIK One controller.

“Our philosophy is that customers should protect their intellectual property, and to us, that means connecting their machine tools and software systems to a properly secured corporate network,” he said. “There’ve been many instances where shops have been hacked and forced to make ransom payments. Granted, these attacks are typically accomplished through email and not through the machine tool control, but it’s a concern nonetheless. This is why the NTMA (National Tooling and Machining Association) has begun offering seminars showing manufacturers how they can protect themselves against these types of cybercrime.”

Despite this, Ledvon admits that the cloud is a technology trend that will only gain momentum. What’s needed to mitigate any associated risks are good IT housekeeping practices. Install a robust firewall between the shop’s network and the outside world. Avoid direct CNC-to-cloud connections by downloading external files, software programs, and patches to a secure internal server, then check them with anti-virus software before distribution. Train all computer users how to manage passwords, spot malicious emails and websites, and protect corporate information. The list goes on.

“Considering that the control is the nerve center of any machine tool, I don’t feel that the convenience of cloud access is worth the risk of exposure to the Internet,” said Ledvon. “None of this stops manufacturers from implementing an Industry 4.0 strategy, however. By all means, they should network their machine tools and begin collecting data for analysis. Doing so will give them the information needed to set up machines faster, reduce cycle times, maximize tool life, and gain all the other advantages offered by today’s CNC controls and software systems.”

Native Talent

Another component of Industry 4.0 is the digital twin, which in this case refers to a virtual but highly accurate and comprehensive representation of a CNC machine tool. According to Vivek Furtado, head of digitalization—machine tools for Siemens Industry Inc., Elk Grove Village, Illinois, digital twins streamline the design and deployment of CNC machinery, ultimately making manufacturers more efficient.

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Fagor’s ARFS (Adaptive Real-time Feed and Speed) control offers adaptive control capabilities that continuously monitor spindle and axis loads, machine vibration, and other values.

“Our SINUMERIK One controller is known as a digital native, in that it was built from the ground up to support the digital twin and other enabling technologies,” he said. “It gives CNC machine tool manufacturers the ability to create a virtual version of a lathe or machining center containing all of its kinematics and operating characteristics. This greatly reduces engineering time and development costs, and assures that the product will meet the end-users needs.”

Digital twin-capable controllers serve other purposes. They speed the training of new employees and reduce the chance that one will crash an expensive machine tool. They allow estimators to more accurately quote jobs, engineers to develop optimized manufacturing processes, and CNC programmers to validate G-code and cutting tool selection before sending work to the shop floor. Once there, they make machine tool operation easier with enhanced graphics and greater usability.

Anyone with a high-end CAM system or PLM software might say they can accomplish most of this without an advanced CNC control. And while there’s no arguing that these and other software platforms’ capabilities have increased dramatically over recent years, machine tools that partake in the digital thread provide machine shops with an important tool, one that enhances data exchange and closes the loop on interoperability.

Adapt and Overcome

Digital twinning aside, Furtado suggested that CNC controllers are becoming much more intelligent and user-friendly, with functions and features that any smartphone user will recognize. “Most of us remember that we once used our phones to call people,” he said. “Today, they let you monitor your health, search for information, place orders for products, and so on. Newer generations of controllers offer similar functionality. They’re able to process information and prepare data in ways that allow it to be more effectively utilized by their human operators, or by other systems.”

This intelligence extends to the machining process as well. Siemens, FANUC, and third-party solution providers such as Caron Engineering offer adaptive control capabilities that continuously monitor spindle and axis loads, machine vibration, and similar factors that affect cutting tool life and part quality. These smart systems then adjust machining parameters in real-time, optimizing material removal and eliminating potential problems.

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Because Okuma’s OSP control is PC-based, it’s easy to download and install software from the company’s App Store and other sources.

Fagor Automation Corp., Elk Grove Village, Illinois, is another control provider with its eye on the Industry 4.0 prize. Harsh Bibra, general manager for North America at Fagor, explained that its ARFS (Adaptive Real-time Feed and Speed) control does all this and more, but noted that this type of sensor-based technology can also be used for predictive maintenance.

“We also offer our i4.0 Connectivity Pack,” he said. “This allows users to collect machining data, of course, but also do things like send condition-based alerts, tune the machine tool and update its firmware, change parameter settings, and so on, all from a mobile device or remote computer.”

The Biggest Bottleneck

Bibra sees big changes ahead. Aside from the increased use of IIoT-capable sensors and accelerometers in machine tools, together with more intelligent controllers, the factories themselves will become smarter. Artificial intelligence (AI) well beyond the adaptive capabilities just mentioned will become prevalent, opening doors to the automated decision-making necessary for widespread lights-out manufacturing.

All of this will quite literally gain speed given the development and subsequent roll-out of 5G cellular networks, Bibra suggested. These will not only increase Internet bandwidth and reduce latency, but possibly alleviate the hacking fears mentioned earlier. “Controls of the future will be equipped with 5G, and the data they generate can then be sent wirelessly at speeds up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbit/s) to so-called edge devices,” he said. “We expect that within a few years, this technology will fundamentally transform how manufacturers gather information from the shop floor.”

The downside to Industry 4.0 is the lack of skilled workers able to understand and work with advanced technology. Bibra said retraining will be needed as manufacturers become more tech-savvy. However, any concerns over tribal knowledge and the loss of experience due to employee attrition and retirement should become ancient history.

Visiting the Store

Jim Kosmala, vice president of engineering and technology at Okuma America Corp., Charlotte, N.C., attributes much of today’s increased connectivity to the use of PC-based controls. “A lot of people forget that Okuma is not only a machine tool builder, but also makes its own servo systems and controllers. These run on Microsoft Windows and use an Intel chip, both of which provide easy connectivity.”

PC-based controls also make it easy to install various software programs onto the control—at the start of the COVID pandemic, for instance, Okuma customers could collaborate with others using Microsoft Teams, sharing screens or giving others remote control as needed. “That’s the whole idea behind our App Store,” Kosmala said. “Users can download and install whatever they need directly on the OSP control, eliminating the need for a separate PC. It represents entirely new possibilities for collaboration and connectivity.”

One of these apps is Okuma’s Connect Plan, which allows users to monitor CNC machine tools and gather operational data. It works with most any brand or vintage of machine tool as well as robots and other forms of automation. According to Kosmala, however, Connect Plan uses an AI algorithm to look at the available information and identify trends that a human might miss.

Consider the manager of a turning department, who notices after weeks of looking at data collection reports and dashboards that a certain lathe always starts up 10 minutes late each morning thanks to the operator’s coffee habit, or that the spindle temperature on the grinder closest to the shipping department drops every time they open the loading door. Kosmala explained that AI picks up on these trends much more quickly than a human, giving supervisors the ability to address potential problem areas sooner. What’s more, this information is stored in a database, so when the supervisor leaves the company, there’s no loss of knowledge.

“Deming told us that without data, you’re just another person with an opinion,” Kosmala said. “The IIoT and Industry 4.0 are about collecting that data and making use of it, ultimately turning it into knowledge. That’s the first step for anyone on this journey. We now have virtual conferencing, and the ability to check machine status or production levels from anywhere, and access to remote tools that simplify automation. If you can do that without having to go into the plant, so much the better. It’s all about increasing efficiency and machine uptime, both of which are more easily accomplished using modern CNC controllers.”

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