Finding The Next Big Thing

Feb. 10, 2008
Management's most crucial investments for factories of the future won't be the hardware or the software, but in the understanding of how new technologies provide new options for powering business success.

Yesterday's manufacturing presumptions are not the most useful context for growing profitable plant-floor success. A better strategy for companies in search of the elusive "next big thing" is to accelerate their innovation efforts to gain maximum competitive advantage. The key challenge is in accepting how rapidly the sense of what's possible is changing and magnifying the potential of the plant floor. Today's important lesson is that the manufacturing step is being transformed from a hurdle to a strategic potential waiting to be exploited. For example, the latest production equipment can be flexible enough to accommodate last-minute changes in product strategy -- even if it means efficiently satisfying a customer via lot sizes of one.

And don't let the presence of excess capacity deter the innovation process. Instead emphasize the real goals of productivity, efficiency and accuracy. Also, don't just replace the old -- create the next big thing.

Evolution of the Machining Center

The race to create the next big thing is overturning yesterday's presumptions in every industrial sector.

For example, researchers at Alfred University are borrowing from the technology of microwave food preparation to replace conventional kilns in firing ceramics. The results of using microwave energy proved to be significant.

"We could go from 'cold' to 'cold' in five hours, versus 24 hours in a conventional kiln," explains research scientist Gary Del Regno. "Product-wise, the results are virtually the same even though from a technical standpoint, lots of different phenomena are involved."

In a conventional kiln, the entire contents of the kiln, including the refractory brick lining it, have to be brought up to temperature, but in a microwave kiln, only the actual ceramic is heated. The technology is beginning to be commercialized with the help of Dave Fredrickson, a kiln specialist at Alfred University's New York State College of Ceramics.

Adept's faster Quattro s650 packaging robot -- up to 240 pick-and-place cycles per minute. In some cases, the next big thing has already been commercialized and is just waiting for informed investment strategies. For example, are you prepared for machine tools so productive that you might be able to reduce floor-space requirements by half or more? According to Brian Papke, president of machine tool manufacturer Mazak Corp., "It's not uncommon for us to replace 16 machines with three or four." Multi-tasking machine tools are just one equipment category contributing to this strategic intimacy of the machine tool to the manufacturing plant.

Papke says multi-tasking machines represent an evolution of the machining center with a turning machine. "It often looks like a turning machine in that it can turn, but it also provides all the performance of a machining center. So now you're combining the turning operations together with the machining center operations and sometimes even doing another perimeter-type operation [such as] a small hobbing operation [or] even grinding. Think of a lean manufacturing cell, all combined into one [machine]."

He says the result is a greatly increased throughput of those operations. At Mazak, Papke traces the idea back to 1983 "when we first started putting some milling on turning machines. Today it has evolved to the point where you can load a solid block of metal and produce a fully machined engine block -- all on one machine with just one setup." Adds Mazak's Chuck Birkle, vice president sales and marketing: "Not only are multi-tasking machines the fastest growing category of the machine tool industry, virtually all the majors are producing them."

No Machine Tool is an Island

Another emerging "big thing" is the evolving convergence of information technology (IT) and machining. Teruyuki Yamazaki, chairman of Yamazaki Mazak (Mazak's Japanese-based world headquarters), describes it best: "In the digital world machine tools are only a form of computer terminal, albeit one capable of cutting and forming metal. How systems are linked to pass on information at increasing speeds will be critical."

Recognition of that challenge has led to an industrywide machine communication initiative led by the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT). Named MTConnect, its goal is to develop a standards protocol for connecting to data in the manufacturing process, explains AMT's Paul Warndorf, vice president, technology. With MTConnect, machine tools will no longer be limited to functioning as isolated islands of automation.

How does it work? Think of it as a middleware standard that will provide the capability to pass data from machine tools to higher-level systems for further processing using the XML-based standard, adds Warndorf. "MTConnect is our vision of how to give manufacturers a way of getting data from equipment on the production floor readily and easily, which previously wasn't available. MTConnect is intended to help users [manufacturers] with the evolving task of integrating machine tools with IT."

"We're trying to put forth a lightweight, open and extensible protocol and data representation that can interconnect machine tools," adds research associate Armando Fox at the University of California's Berkeley computer science labs.

AMT's vision for MTConnect is to create a whole new future for manufacturing managers -- a future with immediate access to information that tells them how well the factory is operating. Industry reaction suggests rapid acceptance of the standard, says Warndorf. AMT sees a growth paralleling that of Java, the computer language that has become pervasive in major business applications.

AMT is facilitating adoption. Warndorf says that all documentation, specification, source code and prototypes developed for MTConnect will be made freely available via the MTConnect Web site under a liberal nonexclusive, royalty-free licensing agreement. AMT is committing up to $1 million to the initiative.

The current status of MTConnect will be demonstrated at AMT's International Manufacturing Technology Show scheduled for September 8-13 in Chicago. Warndorf says the booth in the Emerging Technology display will showcase MTConnect's ability to leverage the same software and analysis across heterogeneous machines, as well as to demonstrate MTConnect's customizability and extensibility to address specific work scenarios and machine features. He says the first factory pilot program for MTConnect is scheduled for Remmele Engineering Inc.

Changes on the Shop Floor

Eventually Warndorf expects MTConnect to involve many industrial equipment sectors beyond machine tools. He cites the recent involvement of the robotics industry as one example of that broadening interest.

"The manufacturing world is reaching a critical turning point where more and more industries are recognizing that machine interconnectivity and communication have become a fundamental requirement for manufacturing," Warndorf says. "That capability delivers competitive advantage via production efficiency, speed and lower integration costs." He compares MTConnect's potential to that of the Internet in terms of how the manufacturing standard will grow and expand its scope.

AMT's pursuit of MTConnect seems to be right on target, says Kurt Zierhut, director of electrical engineering at Haas Automation Inc. "Customers in today's manufacturing environment want and need the capabilities of MTConnect." He attributes the reasons to a rapidly changing shop floor. "Ten or 20 years ago the machine tool was an isolated, unconnected element on the shop floor, Zierhut says. "The user sat in front of it involved with programming, maybe bringing up a paper tape or perhaps a floppy disk, if he was really state of the art.

"Today more and more of our customers want that machine tool program to be created remotely in some CAD system and exported to that machine as soon as the operator announces the change in setup. And as the machine is running, they want to know production status, including production rates and when jobs are completed. In addition, today's customers typically want the machines connected to pallet-loading arrangements that are directed by central planning on the factory floor. Also, central planning expects reports on machine activity."

Zierhut says a third change is the evolution of automatic robotic loading, which requires interface connectivity. That's grown to the point where Haas is introducing a standard interface at the upcoming Westec Show, taking place March 31-April 3 in Los Angeles. "We discovered the need for standard interfaces when we implemented robot-loading arms in our own plant," he says. "We found that the outsourced cost of customized interfaces could equal the cost of the robot. After having three custom implementations in our own plant, we decided to work with the robot suppliers to establish standard interface connectivity."

If the interface is standardized and documented ahead of time, all that the operator needs to do is plug in some wires in a routine procedure, he explains. Ironically, while robot costs have gone down, Zierhut notes that the cost of custom interfaces remains the same.

On MTConnect, Haas bought in early and is already incorporating and extending the communication standard beyond AMT's original approach. Zierhut says those communications advances will be featured at Westec. "We'll be showing machines that implement a new Internet protocol that makes them accessible as a Web site," Zierhut says. "Based on MTConnect, the Internet protocol will make our machine tools accessible via the Web. All the machines need is a Web-enabled connection. The machine tool becomes a Web site capable of reporting status without any need for the machine tool to be connected to an external computer."

Haas expects the feature to rapidly grow in acceptance even though only 1% to 2% of current customers are estimated to need that capability, adds Zierhut. He says the Internet capability will become a standard feature of Haas equipment.

Making the First Part Right

AMT is also playing a supporting role in the federally funded Smart Machine Initiative now being managed by the Coalition for Manufacturing Infrastructure. The focus: developing the technology to facilitate a machine tool's ability to make the first part correct. In addition to AMT, Coalition members include National Tooling and Machining Association, National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, National Center for Manufacturing Science and Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

Warndorf says the research being conducted at Cincinnati's TechSolve Inc. covers all the implications of machine intelligence for part design through part production. He says the goal is researching, developing and demonstrating machine tool intelligence that can both assess and optimize machining operations. Such a machine, for example, would be able to evaluate a machining program and determine if part requirements can be met. In addition Smart Machine goals also include the ability to factor in how machine maintenance conditions have to be accommodated in the manufacturing process, adds Warndorf.

On some of Mazak's machine tools, a communications/intelligence feature called e-Tower demonstrates a commitment to the MTConnect/Smart Machine direction. Consisting of a cylindrical housing almost five feet tall, Birkle says the e-Towers are a collection of IT-related hardware and software that enables the machine tool to be a node on a communications network. Machines equipped with e-Towers incorporate cameras to eliminate blind spots for the machine operator (via a monitor). Birkle says the camera system also helps the operator communicate with technical support and plant management and permits them to view machine operation via a plant's network.

The e-Tower feature was first applied to help minimize downtime on the highly productive multi-tasking machines. Birkle, a member of MTConnect's advisory board, says the AMT communications protocol would greatly facilitate adding e-Towers to machine tools.

Factories of the Future

Industry searches for the next big thing sometimes succumb to the temptation of offshore manufacturing, notes robot maker John Dulchinos, president and COO, Adept Technology Inc. He believes the offshore strategy works best if it is an attempt to produce the product close to offshore customers, but he suspects the strategy could be flawed if the intent is to achieve low labor cost for products sold domestically.

The flaws Dulchinos is referring to are more than disadvantages in shipping time and cost. He contends that automating production here with robots can offer more cost benefits than offshoring. As evidence he cites the historical down trend in robot pricing. "Robot capability that sold for $50,000 10 years ago is now available for $20,000 or less with unmatched speed, quality and efficiency. Robots are low-cost labor," he says. Apparently Asia believes him -- almost 20% of Adept's sales are to Asian markets outside Japan.

The next big idea also can be found in how suppliers organize to provide manufacturing solutions. One example is Siemens' acquisition of UGS in 2007. "Our objective is to give automation customers a more comprehensive means of reaching the intelligent factory of tomorrow," says Thomas Schott, vice president automation for Siemens Automation.

He defines the intelligent factory of the future as having tighter integration of product design with factory automation. Not only will the intelligent factory of the future be aided by PLM [product lifecycle management] software, but also by smart machines capable of self-optimization with easy communication and feedback to management functions.

"The net effect of the acquisition is to tighten the link between the virtual world of computer software and the physical world of factory automation," adds Siemens PLM Software's Chuck Grindstaff, executive vice president of products. "To customers that means our models of the automation equipment accurately reflect their true performance. It's a result of the new closer cooperation between the modeler on the former UGS side and the production equipment producers and the MES [manufacturing execution systems] producers on the factory floor side."

"The resulting automation solution becomes a faster one, a less complex one with the potential for higher functionality," adds Schott. He says the key to reaching for the factory of the future really requires a better integration of the automation hardware and the supporting digital environment such as simulation. As Grindstaff observes, "To gain the competitive advantage of manufacturing speed, it is just as critical for the factory automation to know about the product design world as it is for the product design world to know about the factory automation."

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