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Story & Photos by Andrew Brooks

McMaster’s “Smart Factory” lab showcases next-generation manufacturing automation and data collection

The pace of industrial automation isn’t slowing down. The Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 5.0 – with each succeeding technological horizon, the promise of process automation only becomes more compelling. And while the complexity, time and expense of adopting the latest and greatest in automation ensures there’s still a time lag between innovation and implementation, the potential yields in efficiency keep industry and academic researchers on the trail.

None of these concepts is dead simple, but at a basic level Industry 5.0 will see the widespread introduction of smart technology and smart machines, including robots, that will fully collaborate with people. The promise? Get the best of both worlds: the critical/creative thinking, intuition and expertise of humans, alongside the efficiency, predictability, speed and accuracy of automation–and the machine’s limitless readiness to take on the most mundane, repetitive tasks.

From left: Ishwar Singh, Jan Boer and Mitutoyo's Erin Farmer.Approaching that next stage is what the Learning Factory is all about. Part of the W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology (SEPT) at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, the Learning Factory is bringing together some of the most advanced examples of manufacturing technology and quality control and integrating them in a functional factory setting. That equipment includes Universal Robots and ABB robotic systems, a Haas five axis CNC machine and a Crysta Apex CMM from Mitutoyo.

“The Learning Factory is a shared space, one of its kind in Canada, where students, faculty and industry partners come together to design and make things using modern processes and materials,” said Dr. Mo Elbestawi, director of the W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology (SEPT). “It’s a place to tackle real-world manufacturing challenges through practice, technology and mentorship. The CMM system from Mitutoyo allows our students to instantly and automatically create a measurement program for the 3D metal printed, CNC machined and other parts manufactured in the Learning Factory.”

From left: Ishwar Singh, Jan Boer and Mitutoyo's Erin Farmer.Elbestawi was the primary force in getting the Learning Factory established, together with SEPT adjunct professor Dr. Ishwar Singh and SEPT associate professor and assistant director, undergraduate Dr. Dan Centea. The facility is the result of a collaboration between Mohawk College and McMaster. Funding was secured last April and the Learning Factory’s soft launch has already happened. The formal launch is slated for April.

Singh explains that quality management is one of the focus areas for the Learning Factory. “There are three courses here right now: basic statistics, a quality course and operations management. They all prepare students very well for the role of quality manager anywhere.” Two graduates are now working in quality control at Ford, and another is a quality manager at a food company.

The Learning Factory houses a number of "smart" technologies, including this EOS additive manufacturing machine.That focus is also evident on the floor of the Learning Factory, where highly automated equipment gives students exposure to quality management in a Smart Factory setting.

“We have the high end CMM from Mitutoyo, and basic sensors and measuring devices with wireless communication which we can integrate,” Singh says. “Once a product is made, we can check its quality, measure it and compare it with the design. With Industry 4.0, at every stage of the game you check on part quality and you keep track so you can trace any parts if there are any issues.”

Traceability is one of the key advantages of the high degree of automation associated with Industry 4.0. When what used to be standalone, discrete pieces of equipment become smart machines equipped with sensors and software, they become data collectors and communicators. Vast amounts of data about processes, machines and products can be communicated across the shop floor–and saved and stored on site or in a cloud database, where the numbers can be crunched to provide information for quality control, to track machine condition and trends, to generate alerts for preventive and predictive maintenance, and to support new product development.

The Crysta Apex S544 is equipped with a number of software packages. The MCOSMOS Level 3 CAD-based software gives the machine its instructions, but the operator can create a program by clicking points on the CAD file of the object to be measured, which can save time over the older method of training the machine using drawings. Other programs, such as MiCAT Planner and MeasurLink enable the operator to automatically generate a CMM program and run analytics on the data collected, including process capability (Cp/Cpk) and process performance (Pp/Ppk) metrics.

The Learning Factory is a result of a collaboration between Mohawk College and McMaster University. Quality control and assurance devices from high end CMMs to handheld measuring tools are all being more heavily automated as part of the campaign to collect ever increasing volumes of data, says Erin Farmer, business development specialist with Mitutoyo Canada.

“In process or online measurement, verification or analysis with, for example, a micrometer or a caliper, is made easier with wireless data transmission. You’re able to measure a part or assembly and the data can be collected into statistical process control software for viewing–or you can transfer it to the cloud for analytics, or to a programmable logic controller for process manipulation.”

An increasingly common application involves automatic communication of product data from the CMM to the CNC machine to apply offsets that will keep the machined parts within tolerance. And when a robot is used to take parts off the machine, it can communicate in real time with the CMM to find out if the part is good and goes into one bin, or off-spec and goes into a different one.

Facilities like the Learning Factory are always exploring new applications, and equipment manufacturers are paying attention.

“Once we see the direction the Learning Factory is going and how they’re using our equipment, this may sprout new ideas,” says Farmer. “New things we can bring to our R&D team. I have no doubt there’s going to be a lot of that happening over the next year now that this facility is up and running. And with the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 picking up steam, it comes at a good time.” SMT

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