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Let’s Get Wired!

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media
Fiber optic cables and UTP Network cables all have their place in a connected hub.

Hey, Bob Metcalfe: If you’re reading this, give yourself a big pat on the back. Without you, machine shops and fabricating houses would still be transferring files to their CNC equipment using USB flash drives, a quaint practice once referred to as “sneakernet.” There’d be no paperless job travelers or automated time tracking. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) would never have gained steam because we wouldn’t have a fast, easy way to gather machine data. And that whole lights-out manufacturing thing that gives shops an extra shift or two of production each day? It might be possible, but there’d be far more late-night visits to the floor.

Never heard of Metcalfe? That’s okay; you’ve certainly heard of his brainchild—Ethernet—which he and fellow engineer David Boggs invented while working at the Palo Alto Research Center in 1973. Since then, manufacturers have strung enough CAT-5 cable to circle the globe several times over, connecting CNC machine tools to engineering rooms, tool cribs, front offices, and all points in between. Or have they?

Sneakernet Lives!

Several of the people quoted here would say that—from a networking and connectivity perspective, at least—far too many shops are still stuck in the days of parachute pants and break dancing. As a result, many potential advances and benefits remain out of reach.

“Thumb drive usage is still quite common,” said Rob Taylor, senior account manager for aftermarket support at FANUC America Corp. in Rochester Hills, Mich. “In fact, I’d say that connecting equipment to a network is the number one stumbling block when implementing an IIoT or data collection project.”

That’s unfortunate, because as Taylor and others point out, usable information begins to stream from CNC equipment within minutes of installing practically any data collection tool. In FANUC’s case, this is its MT-LINKi machine tool monitoring software.

Data collection and analytics, improved shop floor visibility, lights-out manufacturing–it all starts with those Ethernet cables. (Provided by FANUC America)

“We completed a big install just last week, and as soon we lit it up, half a dozen machines started complaining about broken cooling fans and one had a servo motor with a ground fault,” he said. “In another case, we hooked up a new machine and the shop owner asked why one of his machines that had recently been connected to MT-LINKi was flickering while in operation. ... It turned out that someone had told the operator to run the gantry loader at 80% and he inadvertently set the CNC’s feedrate override there as well. Now the owner wants every machine in the shop connected, but it all starts with those Ethernet cables.”

Making Connections

This article is about networking, not the tremendous potential of data analytics and the improvement opportunities it presents. But it’s important to note that: A) practically any CNC machine tool is a candidate for some form of connectivity, and B) even the most rudimentary controls are happy to share data on machine status, alarm history, servo and spindle loads, feedrate overrides, and much more information than provided by the Andon lights that most machine tool builders stubbornly insist on installing.

A critical component: the front and back side of an Ethernet port on an Okuma MB-4000H high-speed horizontal machining center. (Provided by Okuma America)

Taylor noted that FANUC introduced the i-Series CNC in 1998—and that the “i” represents intelligent, meaning it was networkable. Ethernet was an option at that time, and in 2004 became embedded in the 16/18 i-B Series. Newer machines equipped with Fast Ethernet boasted a data transfer rate of 100 megabits per second, about 5,000 times faster than the serial communications standard RS-232 that some shops still use.

Casey Croussore has similar stories to tell, although he does see a light at the end of the connectivity tunnel. A principal engineer for software and factory automation products at Okuma America Corp., Charlotte, N.C., Croussore said the number of networking-related questions he and his colleagues have fielded over recent years has “shot through the roof.”

“Much of it has been driven by a rising interest in machine monitoring and the IIoT, but there’s also intellectual property to be concerned with,” Croussore said. “It’s much easier to walk out the door with a company’s IP on a memory stick than to copy it off a network, where you can better enforce access permissions.”

No Machine is an Island

The “I” in FANUC’s i-series controls, introduced in 1998, stands for intelligent. Ethernet was an option back then but has long since become standard equipment. (Provided by FANUC America)

Still, fear holds many shop owners and their management teams back. Chief fears include:

  • Getting hacked
  • Viruses and malware
  • Spending money to network a production floor when the return on investment is unclear

While there’s some merit to each of these concerns, the lost time, lack of control, and reduced visibility that comes with isolated, non-communicative machine tools can spell the difference between profit and loss, and greatness and mediocrity. And that’s without the cloud. Today, everything from feeds and speeds to software-as-a-service is available via cloud-based platforms. Cutting tool and workholding suppliers offer a wealth of technical information at no cost on their websites, while CAD, ERP, and PLM providers give their customers a lower price of entry than traditional “on-prem” solutions.

But what about security? Connecting CNC machinery to an internal network is one thing, but opening the firewall to a digital “Wild West” raises unacceptable risks. As any IT professional will tell you, unwary internet surfers can pick up more bugs than a dog without a flea collar, which is why some manufacturers—especially those in the aerospace and defense sectors—refuse to even entertain the thought of cloud-based software and services.

Still, for the average mom-and-pop shop, and even many small to medium-sized enterprises, engaging with a company that hosts its software on Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure with their teams of network security analysts is probably less risky than relying on in-house, often overworked IT personnel who don’t spend their days keeping operating systems patched and scanning for the next big cyberattack.

“I spoke with a shop owner the other day who in his past life did penetration testing, where he would actively try to break into company’s networks,” Croussore said. “With respect to connecting machines, he told me that very few hackers would bother with a low-value target like a CNC; they’re going after credit card information and passwords, not G-code. But he also said that, for a professional, no device is entirely secure.”

Norman Gagne, president of TEMCO Tool Company in New Hampshire, said he and his team are transforming this 60-year old, 80-employee job shop into “a data shop.” Like others, they have found that connectivity is no longer a nice-to-have.

Class of Service

This is why it’s crucial to regularly back up machine control software as well as part programs, offset tables, and macro variables, an activity made much easier when shop floors are networked. It might also be an excellent idea to partner with a company that specializes in business security and connectivity. One of these is Dallas-based AT&T Business, where Ande Hazard is vice-president of manufacturing.

She and team member Scott Linabarger reference two documents: “Four Ways ‘Connectivity is Transforming Manufacturing by the Manufacturing Leadership Council,” and an e-book from AT&T’s Manufacturing Solution group titled “What is a smart factory and how do I get one?” Both are excellent resources for the network curious. They assert that connected factory floors are no longer optional.

“Given the rise of Industry 4.0 and the IIoT, some larger manufacturers are now collecting data from hundreds of thousands of machine-based sensors on their factory floors,” said Hazard. “We refer to that as massive data.”

While some shops might wish to analyze these huge piles of data in-house, most choose to use a cloud-based analytics service to glean the resultant improvement opportunities, and this means a hefty internet connection. Hazard noted that larger companies typically meet this need with a high-speed fiber connection, providing low latency, excellent reliability, and the speed needed for real-time visibility. For smaller businesses and those who aren’t yet full steam ahead on their Industry 4.0 journey, a less robust (but less costly) cable or DSL connection is often adequate.

Want to know what’s going on inside CNC machinery? Without a wired shop floor, it will all remain a mystery. (Provided by Okuma America)

Internet connectivity assured, the question then becomes what to do inside the factory walls? That’s where professional advice comes in—contrary to the Bob Metcalfe kudos offered earlier, it might not be Ethernet. “Multi-access edge-compute, or MEC, is where we create a private cellular environment for the manufacturer,” Linabarger added. “It effectively allows them to cocoon, if you will, all of their operations and resulting data within the network. And for any data that needs to leave the factory, there’s fiber on the other side of the wall.”

Hazard is quick to admit that MEC is not a one-size-fits-all solution (although it’s close). Plants may require a hybrid approach that relies on existing Wi-Fi for functions such as guest networks and certain mobile devices, with Ethernet used to connect CNC machine tools where no-loss connectivity is needed—spoon feeding NC programs to a control, for instance, or where radio interference is a concern. There’s also 5G, a cellular technology that is yet to make its mark on the industry yet promises a fast, easy, and secure alternative to existing connectivity options.

“There’s no silver bullet, but we can tell a very compelling story around designing and implementing a robust manufacturing network,” she said. “And that’s the first step for any shop wishing to take advantage of Industry 4.0 and the IIoT.”

Catching Butterflies

Anyone fortunate enough to have such a network faces yet another consideration: what communication protocol to use? Croussore will tell you that most North American shops opt for MT Connect, but this is by no means the only option. There’s also the Open Platform Communications (OPC), a technology “created to allow information to be easily and securely exchanged between diverse platforms from multiple vendors and to allow seamless integration of those platforms without costly, time-consuming software development.”

That’s from the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based OPC Foundation’s website. And while the organization’s director for North America, Mike Clark, is reluctant to make a direct comparison between the two standards, he will point out that OPC unified architecture (UA) is just as its name describes. It’s open, and therefore “transport agnostic,” a fancy way of saying it doesn’t matter what protocol you use, whether it’s TCP, UDP, FTP, or MQTT.

“The OPC Foundation defines a ubiquitous data model,” Clark said. “In other words, we’re not so concerned about the transport used to carry the information, only that it is preserved across all facets of the organization and made available to any system that can make use of it. Whether it’s a sensor on a machine tool, a robotic controller or edge device, or an MES platform that resides in the cloud, the data model transcends all layers and never needs to be converted or reformatted.”

The exception to this last statement is when a manufacturer is using a product that doesn’t have an OPC UA client or server, in which case a readily available adapter is required. This, however, is an increasingly unlikely event given the “laundry list of companies” that participated in the standard’s ongoing development. In a demonstration of the most recent iteration, 15 competing vendors with 15 different controls shared data across a flat network without any gateways, translators, or converters, an event that Clark suggested will “change the current landscape tremendously.”

“Throughout my career, I’ve watched as this perpetual battle royale took place between a host of equipment suppliers and vendors,” he said. “For example, in my previous life working for an upstream producer in the oil and gas sector, we would host ‘bake-offs’ that allowed the industrial solution providers of the world to show off their various wares. And although these companies might offer very high-quality products, they were also quite competitive and never intended for them to operate in a shared domain, which often meant bringing in an integrator to get these different solutions talking to one another. It was frustrating.”

According to Clark, those days are fading fast, thanks to OPC UA. Data sharing is not only universal, but the data itself is contextualized. The receiving device knows the who, what, why, when, and where of any transmission, and now, thanks to OPC UA field eXchange, achieves this without the need for translators, integrators, or gateways. “In this era of digital transformations and the IIoT, data is like a kaleidoscope of butterflies encircling manufacturers. OPC UA is the net that lets them capture it all.”

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