The Future of Machining Arrives Early

Jan. 9, 2009
The 'factory of the future' is already here and offering significant competitive advantage.

It's time to begin relabeling "Factory of the Future" as "Potential for the Present." As evidence, consider the technological capabilities already emerging in today's machine tools.

One example is the strategic benefits of a "green" machining strategy at Ford Motor Co.'s Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich. By implementing machine tools incorporating Minimum Quantity Lubrication (MQL), the plant improves part quality and cuts piece-processing cost, says Jim Braun, vice president, product development and standardization, MAG Industrial Automation Systems.

Ford reports that nearly dry MQL machining slices seven figures from initial system cost for unneeded coolant tanks and high pressure supply systems, reduces operating costs, and improves plant air quality. More importantly, the part quality level achieved with MQL is equal to or better than comparable wet machining operations. That was documented last spring when the plant finished first in Ford's 2008 North American Powertrain Environmental Performance Award.

The Van Dyke plant currently uses more than 120 MAG CNC machines equipped with MCL or a hybrid system combining CNC and special machines. MQL is a nearly dry machining process that uses a through-tool oil mist tailored to provide just the right volume for ideal lubrication at the interface of tool and work surface. The amount of lubricity is controlled for the particular machining operation and tool, such as tapping or face milling. MQL reduces metalworking fluid flow from gallons per minute (in traditional wet machining) to milliliters per hour, Ford reports.

What were once "Factory of the Future" goals have become today's competitive differentiators, says Jim Braun (pictured below), vice president, product development and standardization, MAG Industrial Automation.
The plant's most recent green-machine installation in early 2008 included 55 MAG horizontal machining systems configured for 4- and 5-axis work to produce aluminum parts for the 6F midrange FWD transmission. The high-speed machines complement MQL with a proprietary real-time temperature compensation system that constantly monitors the machine, the part and ambient air to ensure consistently precise work.

Ford says the steeply angled interior of the machine, coupled with a chip evacuation system, eliminates the need for chip-flushing coolant and the resulting cost for pumps, filter media and chip drying. The machining envelope is kept under negative air pressure, with chips and oil mist being pulled out in an airstream, then through a centrifuge and filter system.

Dry chips collect in a hopper and clean air is returned to the plant or back of the machine enclosure. A Ford study indicates that the filtered air from the chip evacuation system is as clean as typical office air.

Research by MAG Powertrain North America shows that the investment, operation and maintenance costs of traditional coolant systems can easily reach 15% of the lifecycle cost of a machining system, says Ron Quaile, vice president, proposal, estimating and marketing.

Production monitoring software is another sign that "Factory of the Future" capability is becoming today's reality. MAG's Freedom eLog was originally developed years ago for internal use and then turned into a commercial product, explains Braun. Now marketed by MAG's Infimatic Division, Freedom eLog allows production managers to take an analytic look at the entire factory floor on a 24/7 basis.

Braun says the objective is to provide machine uptime intelligence and identify and categorize downtime events. He says it is now installed in about 20 different countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America. Braun reports that one major manufacturing customer experienced productivity increases that enabled a payback of the capital expenditure within nine months.

As one of the pioneer members of AMT's MT Connect initiative, MAG is set to take advantage of the multivendor communications capability provided by the communications standard, says Braun. "Now that machine tools can speak the same language, MAG gains the ability to more easily extend Freedom eLog throughout the plant regardless of machine vendor. Now it can be done with an open interface."

Moving into the future, Braun says one challenge is to leverage software tools and use them to enhance the green potential of machine tools. He's focusing on three machine areas of power consumption: the electrics, hydraulics and pneumatics. "We need software that can look more broadly at what is going on in the machine, perform and provide greater analysis and guidance on how to reduce power consumption. One approach might be for a software solution to monitor a machine's electrical power usage and relate production schedules to the kilowatt-hour rates advertised by the power provider. The software might be able to advise the machine user to modify power usage to take advantage of rate fluctuations. The idea would be to provide more intelligent analysis tools on how and when to run the machine."

Equally important, adds Braun, will be the system recommendations when the machine tool is in the standby mode, waiting to be used. He says the potential exists to pare energy consumption by at least 50% under such circumstances.

The green research focus on energy efficiency will also have some other machine tool design implications, adds MAG's Mark Logan, vice president, business development and marketing. "For example, hydraulic actuation will tend to be reserved only for the large machine tools where there is no adequate power alternative."

Braun expects robotic technology to continue influencing machining concepts. His reference is not only to the Milacron robotic design legacy in MAG's composite machines, but also to the potential robot technology could play in multitasking machine designs of the future. (Milacron, a predecessor machine tool company, was also an industrial robot provider.)

Braun says the robotic influence on multitasking will accelerate as robots continue to gain on attaining the performance accuracy expected of machine tools. Eventually, he predicts, a robotic machining approach will represent the ultimate in multitasking machines.

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