In the manufacturing technology industry, for years it's been that manufacturing equipment, devices and software applications had no easy way to "talk" to each other. The reason was simple -- after all, they had no common language.

But imagine if that same acceptance had permeated the IT industry? The things we take for granted with our personal computers and other devices would be impossible. There would be no such thing as simply plugging your computer into your cable modem. Even using a simple USB thumb drive would be impossible, because a file that one computer could read and utilize would be gibberish to another. So why would you need a means to make that file portable? You might be able to email a co-worker, but forget sending one to somebody outside your company's local network. Even hooking up to a printer would be impossible, if only certain computers could recognize it. And the internet? Perish the thought! It never would have happened.

The difference is that the IT world worked to develop a common language that could be universally understood throughout the vast worldwide network we've come to know. So why can't manufacturing do the same?

The reality -- manufacturing CAN do the same. And it is, with the MTConnect communications and interconnectivity standard.

MTConnect was introduced at the 2008 edition of the International Manufacturing Technology Show. Today, it has grown, thanks to the work of the MTConnect Institute, academia, and a number of manufacturing companies that have been using and promoting the standard on their own equipment.

So maybe you're saying... OK, so why is this important? I see why it works for computers. But why is there a need for this common language between manufacturing equipment?

One of the main benefits is the ability to extract and track data from that equipment. With MTConnect, data can be collected, organized, and analyzed to get a true look at just how well machinery is performing on the shop floor. With this kind of insight, you can get a much better picture into which processes are working well, and which ones need improvement. Monitoring the shop or plant floor is just the first step. After monitoring has been implemented, plant managers quickly want to integrate all of their manufacturing equipment data with the rest of their IT systems to provide a total view of their business operations.

MTConnect isn't the first communications standard to come to the manufacturing world, but it is the first open and royalty-free version. Past versions required users to pay a startup fee, followed by usage fees beyond that. MTConnect is free to implement and use, an important part of ensuring that the standard gains wide usage throughout the industry.

MTConnect got its start in 2006, when a number of experts from the IT industry were invited to discuss the needs of manufacturing at the Association For Manufacturing Technology's annual meeting. These experts warned that without the ability for universal connectivity, manufacturing would be unable to keep up with worldwide demand because it could not automate rapidly enough. Productivity would suffer as a result.

In January 2007, AMT put up $1 million in seed money to launch the MTConnect project, calling on those same IT industry experts to get it started. With the launch of the MTConnect Institute, a number of members and implementers have come on board, and it has grown ever since.

It can be a bit difficult to grasp the concept of what MTConnect actually is. It might be easier to say what it isn't: It isn't a piece of hardware or a software application. So, what is MTConnect? It is a protocol. A protocol is simply how two different devices speak to each other and what data is available. The easiest way to think about MTConnect is that it is the Bluetooth for manufacturing. MTConnect doesn't tell you what to do with the data it collects; it merely collects it and makes it very easy for applications to read that data.

While MTConnect isn't a hardware device, companies are making black boxes the size of a brick that connect legacy machine tools on one side and to the network on the other side. MTConnect data isn't tied to any one developer or vendor -- the data are completely neutral. The MTConnect Institute makes MTConnect protocol available for free for its members. It costs nothing to become a member. That's because with a common protocol like MTConnect, everyone in manufacturing wins. The ability to plug-n-play in manufacturing means productivity gains because you simply cannot manage what you do not know.

It might all seem a bit nebulous, but perhaps the simplest way to understand MTConnect is to think of it as the universal translator. MTConnect takes the countless number of pieces of manufacturing equipment around the globe and provides a way for all of these systems to speak a common and open language. This language makes it possible to monitor such things as the amount of time a machine is in cycle, the alarms and delays it experiences, and any number of things that can be fitted with a sensor: movement and temperature, for example.

One of the best ways to understand MTConnect is to see how it works in person. In November, the first-ever MTConnect conference will take place in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can learn more about this event at www.MTConnectConference.org.

AMT took the lead on this standard because we saw an incredible need to be filled within the industry. With the industry's support, a world without this kind of connectivity could eventually be a distant memory -- or forgotten altogether.

Doug Woods is president of AMT. To learn more about the [MC]2 MTConnect: Connecting Manufacturing Conference, visit www.MTConnectConference.org.