IMTS 2008 Preview -- Machine Tools Join the Internet Age

Aug. 8, 2008
A new communications protocol for machine tools could greatly enhance the productivity of the manufacturing industry.

Visitors to Chicago's upcoming International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS 2008) will have an opportunity to witness an industry-changing exhibit -- billed as "the most exciting development since numerical control." The reference is to MTConnect, a new open communication protocol standard for interconnectability between machines, independent systems, devices and higher-level applications, says Paul Warndorf, AMT's vice president, technology.

The numerical control (NC) concept first emerged as a "hot" discussion topic way back in 1955, but it wasn't until the 1972 IMTS show that NC resulted in exhibited, commercial products that proceeded to revolutionize the manufacturing industry's productivity and quality. Now, decades later, a concept of equal potential has been launched. AMT compares MTConnect's standardization significance with an initiative from the 1860s -- standardizing screw thread for industrial usage. Warndorf says all three are initiatives of far-reaching significance in the manufacturing world.

In facilitating, coordinating and showcasing the industrywide effort, AMT is attempting to mirror the success occurring in the information technology world, says Peter Eelman, IMTS vice president, exhibitions. Although the standard's initial developmental thrust is in the machine tool sector, MTConnect is really an effort to solve data connectivity across all of discrete manufacturing, adds Warndorf.

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The idea is to allow for devices, equipment and systems to output data in an independent format that can be read by any other device using the same standard format to read data. He says MTConnect will enable everyone in the production supply chain to be part of making the manufacturing enterprise more productive. MTConnect will be open and royalty-free to ensure the widest possible acceptance and utility.

MTConnect will have a pervasive presence at IMTS. For example, in the Emerging Technology Center visitors and exhibitors can either view a video explaining the concept and/or try it out via MTConnect-equipped computerized kiosks. Warndorf says the computerized kiosks are networked to the machine tools of participating exhibitors on the show floor. Activating the touchscreens delivers status reports from the machine in the specified booth. Warndorf says that data reporting is just the beginning of how far the information presentation could go in the future. "We want to tantalize the user community. We want to start them thinking about the future possibilities of expanding the concept."

Warndorf admits further inspiration might also come from the process industries where communication standards have both an established history and established service providers. One example is SmartSignal Corp. Data communication standards in the process industries enable its services business to deliver advanced asset analytics. "We provide detailed, real-time monitoring of 2,000 power plants, says David Bell, vice president, application engineering.

Through its Internet collaboration features, SmartSignal works with plant personnel until the problems are investigated and resolved. The company's services solution is designed to provide the intelligence and guidance needed to predict, diagnose and prioritize problems even before traditional, often-difficult-to-maintain, condition-based monitoring tools detect them, says Bell.

With MTConnect in discrete manufacturing, Warndorf sees future usage evolving to include control functionality as well as data access. Possibilities include leveraging MTConnect to control power consumption. Typically, data collection and control will proceed together, says Warndorf. "After all, effective control depends on knowing what's going on, and developing that knowledge base means data access."

Warndorf says machine tool users recognize that MTConnect relates to significant competitive issues. To grow that theme even further AMT has an ongoing university competition focusing on new ways to strengthen that value. "The challenge: How can we get applications to now utilize real data to improve their output?" IMTS 2008 marks the midway point in this competition, notes Eelman. The finalists will be awarded their prizes in October 2009 at the EMO 2009 exhibition in Milan, Italy.

Immediate Data Access

Warndorf's vision for the XML-based middleware standard is to create a whole new future for manufacturing managers -- where the immediate data access will provide advantages that won't stop growing.

Warndorf says comments by AMT members indicate their enthusiastic acceptance of MTConnect. For example: "You're not moving fast enough!" Machine tool manufacturer Mazak, for example has already conceptually incorporated MTConnect approaches in its e-Tower machine tool communication nodes, says Chuck Birkle, vice president, sales and marketing. Haas is another instance of enthusiastic support, says Kurt Zierhut, director of electrical engineering at the company.

Mazak's Brian Papke: "Consider how [machine tool] intelligence and MTConnect make each machine a more significant contributor to the overall output of a manufacturing operation." Shown above: Integrex i-150.

AMT's development budget for MTConnect was originally set at $1 million, but the investment has already reached $2 million, adds Warndorf.

To Brian Papke, president of Mazak Corp., the strongest justification for MTConnect is boldly evident among all of the IMTS exhibits. "It is the growing intelligence of machine tools and the growing need to access it."

Papke says Mazak's exhibit of 20 machine tools (booth A-8101) exemplifies the ever-increasing machine intelligence trend. One example, says Papke, is Mazak's Integrex i-150 Multi-Tasking Center for small, complex parts. Designed with an ultra-compact footprint, the product is designed for medical appliance manufacturers for high-precision component machining involving round, square or angular characteristics. With its Active Vibration Control, the machine optimizes acceleration and deceleration parameters during changes in direction through the extensive look-ahead capabilities in the Mazatrol Matrix CNC control.

Also contributing to accuracy is the Intelligent Thermal Shield. The comprehensive algorithm differentiates dynamic thermal impact (for example, spindle rotation) from static thermal impact (base or column structure growth) to arrive at the proper displacement adjustment. Multiple sensors retrieve the thermal data for processing.

Sensors are involved with the i-150's Intelligent Performance Spindle Monitoring feature. Performance analysis is accomplished through a series of sensors located in the spindle housing. Machining errors and maintenance intervention are avoided by analyzing such things as temperature, vibration and displacement.

Machine intelligence also handles safety and reliability on the i-150. For example, an Intelligent Safety Shield feature is a dynamic, 3-D simulation of machine components, tooling, fixturing and workpiece all displayed on the CNC control screen. Manual stepping of the part program identifies any interference situations, halts machine movements and allows safe corrections to be made in advance of production.

While conversations with the i-150 are not possible, the machining center does include the Mazak Voice Advisor. It allows the CNC to "talk" with the operator during setup, verbalizing machine settings and issuing safety advice for secure operations.

The i-150 also helps operators monitor maintenance issues with an Intelligent Maintenance Support function. This feature monitors the status of perishable items and logs the history of major machine subassemblies. Pop-up windows alert the operator to specific required maintenance and allow shop management to develop a tailored preventive maintenance program.

Is the increased presence of machine intelligence simply a sign of a machine tool maker attempting to compensate for the continuing, chronic shortage of skilled trained machine operators? Not in Mazak's thinking, insists Papke. He points out that machine intelligence, as it increases the performance and capability of a machine tool, actually makes it imperative to have a better-trained and skilled operator.

"Consider how intelligence and MTConnect make each machine a more significant contributor to the overall output of a manufacturing operation," Papke says. "You're doing more with fewer, more capable machines and therefore operator training becomes a more critical performance issue."

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