Agents of Change

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by Kip Hanson

EDM turns to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to increase productivity


Unlike CNC lathes and machining centres, where the sights and sounds of machining are abundantly clear, EDM is a relatively sedate process. True, wire and sinker EDM generates a storm of electrical activity, as well as temperatures that rival parts of our sun’s atmosphere, but this miniature tempest is usually hidden beneath the surface of a water or oil-filled tank, or deep inside a workpiece. Determining what’s going on in there has long been more challenging than figuring out the whodunit in an Agatha Christie mystery.

R you connected?
Not anymore. Machine tool manufacturers are giving customers the ability to not only observe and record each minute detail of the EDM process, but are making maintenance and remote-control functions easier as well. One of these is GF Machining Solutions LLC (GFMS). EDM product manager Eric Ostini says the first phase of the company’s rConnect central communications platform, Live Remote Assistance (LRA), reduces downtime and maintenance costs by allowing users to initiate a virtual service call right from the machine control.

“Instead of paying a technician to come onsite, or trying to walk someone through a troubleshooting step over the phone, LRA gives us direct access to the machine control,” he says. “All the operator has to do is push a button on the user interface, which sends a message to one of our support centers that help is needed. We respond with a message that basically says, ‘Here I am,’ and that in turn must be confirmed before we are allowed into the control. It’s a very secure way to support anyone, anywhere, as fast as the internet can get us there.”

That support includes whiteboard capabilities, where the service engineer can remotely pull up a document and highlight or circle areas for the customer to review. There’s chat and texting, as well as a headset that the operator can plug into a jack on the control for speaking with the engineer. If a Windows-capable tablet PC is available, its camera can be used as a set of remote eyes, allowing the engineer to virtually inspect the machine—to peek inside the electrical cabinet, perhaps, or check the status of various LED indicators.

For repair situations beyond the customer’s skill level, GFMS uses rConnect with its own people as well, allowing onsite engineers that are stuck on a problem to tag team with support personnel back home, even if the affected machine isn’t equipped with LRA. The result, says Ostini, is speedier, more robust levels of customer support. “LRA also provides a user interface that the customer can use internally, to check machine status from the front office, or review upcoming maintenance activities.”

Makino’s HyperConnect function enhances operator capabilities at the machine.Get Hyper
Makino is another machine tool builder riding the IIoT train. Its HyperConnect software suite offers similar troubleshooting functions, while also providing email messaging and remote control of PCs from the shop floor. Brian Pfluger, EDM product line manager, explains that these tools have been available for some time from Makino as separate options, but are now being bundled into an IIoT-centric package designed to eliminate the “running back and forth between machines and office spaces.”

“HyperConnect is composed of four distinct software tools,” he says. “EDM Mail will alert someone by email if there’s a problem or machine stoppage, or can be scheduled to send periodic status updates. Machine Viewer allows remote access to a networked Hyper-I control machine from any PC or enabled smart-phone, and Machine-to-Machine Viewer does the same thing but from any other Hyper-I control on the floor. And the PC viewer function lets the machine operator use a CAM system that’s sitting on a PC in the front office, for instance, or open Word or Excel. It just makes things a lot more efficient.”

There’s more to IIoT than maintenance, however. Makino, GFMS, and others provide real-time monitoring of the machining process, and allow users to record as much or as little of the resulting data. This is an important feature for those shops doing aerospace or medical work, where traceability is critical. Whatever the level of IIoT connectivity or the amount of data being pulled from the machine, Pfluger recommends that shops networked their EDM equipment using properly shielded cable for best reliability rather than wirelessly, to avoid the “electronic hell” that exists around EDM spark generators.

Smart wire
IIoT functionality is beginning to extend even to EDM consumables. “We’ve created a system that can read an RFID tag placed inside the wire spool,” says Makino’s GFMS’s Ostini. “When you place the spool in the machine, it’s constantly reading and updating the information stored there. You can tell how much wire is left on the spool, when the wire was manufactured, where it was purchased—pretty much anything you want to record. This eliminates the possibility of running out of wire during a job, for example, or that the wrong spool gets used.”

With RFID tags embedded into the spools, you can take them from one machine to the next while keeping its data.  Image: GF Machining SolutionIt’s clear that EDM equipment manufacturers are embracing IIoT technology like never before, but where does that leave shops with a mixed bag of EDM brands on their production floor, or those with older, less capable equipment? Is all this Industry 4.0 stuff really all that important?

Athulan Vijayaraghavan, chief technical officer at smart manufacturing software provider Vimana Solutions says that what was once a nice-to-have is now a necessity. “There’s definitely been a shift recently to seeing this technology as business competitive,” he says. “Much of that is being driven by companies that are making the IIoT, smart manufacturing and, Industry 4.0 technology in general a big part of how they want to manage their facilities. For many, it’s gone from ‘something extra’ to the central way in which they’re cutting costs and improving operations.”

Visible gains
Vijayaraghavan says the biggest gain to any smart manufacturing rollout is visibility. Production managers can see what assets are running, what’s being worked on and what’s next in line. Machine tool operators and programmers have easy access to everything needed to do their jobs, and can take the proper corrective action if something goes awry. And when such an action is taken, the steps are recorded—no more tribal knowledge. Best of all, management has a clear view of their operating costs. Taking on a rush order is no longer a nail-biting experience. Scheduling is more accurate, uptime increases, and quality improves. The company becomes a data-driven organization, one that uses facts to make continuous improvement decisions, rather than best guesses based on experience.

In terms of EDM, Vijayaraghavan says it’s possible to capture dielectric PH and temperature, for example, or electrical parameters and other values that affect throughput and part quality, giving shop personnel the ability to analyze data that was previously unavailable, and use it to do their jobs more effectively.

Makino’s Hyper-i control provides recording and exporting of setup measurement data.Change and effort
It takes some effort. Makino’s Pflugger recommends that anyone undertaking an Industry 4.0 initiative appoint a change agent. This doesn’t have to be the top setup person or programmer, but rather someone with a good understanding of the business and of manufacturing in general. “They should also be empowered to make decisions,” he says. “It should be someone who can seize the opportunity and run with it, and wants to help their coworkers learn to think differently about how they can use data to solve problems. This is what companies need if they’re going to be successful with the IIoT and smart manufacturing.”

He says IIoT connectivity will drive the next wave of competitive machine advantages. “The interconnectivity and use of new IIoT technologies on the shop floor are beginning to take hold, and are providing shops with new tools to manage throughput and improve efficiency. A key item to maximizing the capability of IIoT functions is to have the equipment connected to a network. This may cause issue for some shops, as it is not uncommon for companies to have policies that prevent their equipment from being connected to a main central network that has connection to the outside Internet for data security reasons. While no network is 100 per cent secure, many helpful IIoT functions can be utilized with a simple internal LAN (Local Area Network) system, such as connecting a machine to an internal PC that cannot access an outside World Wide Web. The use of IIoT technologies will continue to advance and grow, so it is paramount for shops to embrace and adopt these new capabilities as a means to improve communication and enhance productivity.” SMT

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