Making Machine Tools Reconfigurable

The vision: 'living' factories that evolve easily and quickly over time as new technology and products are introduced.

Tip: When visiting Chicago's International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) this September, expect to see something more fundamental than the convergence of IT and machine tools. Look for the progress in reconfigurable machining systems (RMS). Experts say the concept ranks on a par with mass production, lean manufacturing and numerical control. RMS gives the production floor new flexibility to meet the reality of a market where product designs have a short life, and competitors move fast. The RMS concept is designed to rapidly scale up from short to long production runs. "Traditionally, manufacturing systems incorporate new technology and new products by periodically building new production systems and discarding the old," explains Yoram Koren, a University of Michigan (UM) professor of engineering, Ann Arbor. As director of the UM Center for Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems, Koren's design goals center on hardware and software modules that can be rearranged and upgraded quickly and easily to reduce new-product development time and changeover problems. IMTS visitors can see his latest reconfigurable machine tool prototype at the booth of Cleveland-based partner Masco Machine Inc. The prototype was built by Masco from a design executed by Lamb Technicon, Detroit. But also expect to see how Koren's other industrial partners have adapted reconfigurability to their machine tool designs. Those partners have free access to any of the RMS technology and patents developed at the UM Center, Koren explains. For users, the RMS concept represents a new way to transition from the inflexibility of dedicated transfer lines. While transfer lines may be "lean" in the sense that they have only the process equipment necessary to produce a desired product, they're "rigid" in that they are completely dedicated to a single part. Conventional flexible machining systems (FMS), the traditional alternative to the dedicated transfer line, do offer flexibility, but the amount of flexibility is decided at the point of purchase, not as the user varies part configuration. Not only does the buyer risk buying flexibility that will be unused, the issues of capacity, speed and quality can pose problems. Koren says the RMS concept brings together some of the philosophical approaches of both transfer lines and FMS. But while transfer lines are dedicated to one part design, the RMS idea is dedicated to a part family with a designed-in capability to rapidly adapt.

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