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In Control: Machine Tool Builders Progress with Power and Precision

Webb Hicks
By Webb Hicks Professor, Manufacturing Engineering Technology, Richard J. Daley College

Like most of the manufacturing community, I was excited to get back to IMTS after the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19. I’ve been attending the show for about 50 years, but the recent four-year break felt like a lifetime.

When I first started going to IMTS, it was held at the International Amphitheater in the Chicago stockyards, rather than the spacious McCormick Place. At those early shows, machine tools were largely manual and mostly American. The big domestic suppliers were Cincinnati, Warner & Swasey, Kearney & Trecker, and Giddings & Lewis—many of which were just getting into NC machine tool construction.

I’ve specialized in NC and CNC machines throughout my career, including the last 16 years teaching the next-generation of manufacturing professionals at a community college. So, as it’s impossible to view all the displays at IMTS, I decided to focus my attention at the 2022 show on the latest CNC vertical milling machinery.

As I toured the exhibition floor, I was amazed at the types of machine tools. Gone was any hint of yesteryear’s manual devices; in their place were myriad bright and shiny machine tools with sophisticated CNC controls, including more than a few with robots tending them. The landscape has changed tremendously.

I spoke with representatives from three major machine builders: Haas Automation Inc., Mazak Corp., and Okuma America Corp. I asked each to reflect on innovation inflection points for their companies over the last 40 years, and how these have changed the way they manufacture machine tools.

The most noted changes were to controls. Mazak laid out a timeline starting with the T-1 and the M-1 Mazatrol controls progressing through processor changes to 16-, 32-, and 64-bit systems, then finally to a Windows operating system. The earlier controls could not keep up with programs produced in E.I.A. (G-Codes) because of the need to process additional information in Mazatrol, according to Jeff Everett, direct sales manager for Mazak. The introduction of faster processing chips and Windows has all but eliminated that difference, he said, noting that Mazak’s Smooth Control Series now produces toolpath graphics for both Mazatrol and E.I.A. programs. The powerful controls are equipped with dual RISC units to quickly process information and enhance toolpath surface finish.

Okuma, which has been building machine tools for 120 years, also has steadily added more powerful control systems over the years: starting in the early 1980s with OSP, then Think, and onto the company’s current PC-based controls. The controls enable very precise machine tools, according to product specialist Wade Anderson, who attributes the capability to a double-column construction and thermally stable beds of Okuma’s vertical machining centers. The powerful controls also yield increased feed and speed rates, which cut machine operating times.

Oxnard, Calif.-based Haas began using CNC machines in the late 1980s, just a few years after its founding. The company began producing rotary tables that interacted with machine tools and their existing controls, explained product specialist John Nelson. Haas never had a NC phase with punch cards and punch tapes, instead moving directly to its own controls. The latest control, appropriately dubbed “Next Generation,” can upload programs through USB and ethernet connections, Nelson said. And operators can download digital DXF files at the machine.

The three companies reflect the industry’s steady progression to precise machines with sophisticated controls that meet requirements for increased speed and lower operation times, and provide operators an abundance of information via digital modeling. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

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