Getting Connected -- for a Smarter Factory

May 17, 2009
MTConnect, the machine tool interoperability standard, promises to revolutionize manufacturing -- and competition.

Question: What's your strategy for implementing MTConnect, the machine tool interoperability standard launched by AMT, the Association for Manufacturing Technology?

A primary issue to consider is timing. Early adopters in the manufacturing world are able to leverage their performance and management gains as competitive advances against lagging competitors, says Chuck Birkle, vice president, sales and marketing, Mazak Corp. MTConnect is also becoming a competitive factor for machine tool builders. Birkle says builders are already encountering customers asking about machine tools with MTConnect-compliant control systems.

The operating benefits alluded to accrue as a result of the efficiencies of the MTConnect interoperability standard, says Paul Warndorf, assistant secretary of AMT's newly formed MTConnect Institute.

Formation of the institute is the latest sign of AMT's dedication to bringing machine tools and manufacturing to the digital potential of the Internet Age, says Warndorf. He's referring to plant floors so outdated that they routinely lack the equipment connectivity of a typical office environment.

"Today, individual pieces of equipment make up the backbone of the manufacturing plant floor. Each machine, however, often functions independently, creating in effect a collection of production islands," says Warndorf. The only exceptions exist among the large machine tool users, typically automotive, that have invested in costly proprietary approaches.

MTConnect, says Warndorf, should be considered as the basic first step in connecting those islands of automation with a free, open-source approach. "It's progress toward the goal of seamlessly integrated manufacturing operations from design to production. By establishing an open and extensible channel of communication for interconnectivity between devices, equipment and systems, MTConnect will allow all of those sources to exchange and understand each other's data."

As an initiative being promoted as an international standard, MTConnect brings key advantages to manufacturing management. Warndorf cites five compelling factors:

Chuck Birkle: Builders already are encountering customers asking about machine tools with MTConnect-compliant control systems.

Lower implementation cost. Products and services developed using the standard will be "plug and play," leading to a faster, cleaner and lower cost means of connectivity. As an industrial standard, the benefits of device connectivity are achieved without incurring the repetitive system costs of IT consulting, software programming and hardware integration. "All you would have to do is plug in the machine and the system would detect it and link to it, as a computer detects a device plugged into its USB port. Since MTConnect uses Internet Protocol, global monitoring would be possible," adds Warndorf.
  • Lower risk. Products and services using MTConnect will have a low risk of malfunction for manufacturers due to its status as a fully developed standard. Implementation doesn't require extended research and modifications.
  • Better control and higher awareness of operations. "With MTConnect, manufacturers gain the capability to transition from historical data collection to near real-time insight into plant operations," adds Warndorf. With MTConnect that can be done via the Internet if the machines and a simple shop floor monitor are MTConnect compliant.
  • Flexibility in machine selection. Warndorf says MTConnect will empower manufacturers to take the same approach for integrating their production operations as they can today with IT equipment. For example, virtually any desktop or laptop computer can be networked with virtually any printer regardless of manufacturer. On the factory floor, that same flexibility will exist without the concern for integration costs or compatibility, he adds.
  • Increased productivity. Warndorf interprets MTConnect's data collection capability as the means to optimize production throughput. "It (MTConnect) is an enabler to greater knowledge through the ability to collect data where you may not have been able to do so in the past. With this data, and appropriate analysis tools, you can now determine the integrity of your equipment and have greater assurance that you can make the part. With better insight into how a facility is actually performing managements will be able to make better decisions to improve productivity and proposal activity."
  • What's To Come

    Bridging the communications gap among machine tools that don't use the same language is just the beginning of the MTConnect revolution in manufacturing, says Jim Braun, vice president, product development and standardization, MAG Industrial Automation Systems.

    In addition to being the next step in machine tool connectivity, MTConnect enables equally significant progress toward improved productivity. Now you have a cost effective method to better understand what is going on in the factory on a near real-time basis. With MTConnect informed decisions will be the natural outcome of the easily available information. In addition to benefiting production and maintenance of machine tools, the concept of MTConnect is predicted to spread these kinds of performance enhancements to the entire factory floor. (See adjoining story on Freedom eLog). Envision the factory of the future with all of the machinery, including robots, connected with the MTConnect standard. "It would be the equivalent of everybody in an office communicating via e-mail," adds Braun. "Eventually production equipment will be able to routinely communicate in the same fashion."

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