Diving into Digital: Is your shop ready to embrace the revolution?

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Sandvik Coromant introduced its MachiningInsights machine tool monitoring and data analytics platform to the North American market in 2018. It has continued to gain popularity ever since.  Image: Sandvik Coromant

By Kip Hanson

It’s fun to look back at the evolution of machine shop names over the past four decades. Back in the day, most contained the owner’s surname, followed by Automatics or Handscrew or Screw Machine Products. These gradually morphed into names like Numeric Concepts, Tape Inc. (my father-in-law’s shop), and other capitalized nouns representing that decade’s technology level.

Today, the word is digital. Digital Manufacturing Inc., Digital Machine Company, Digital Machining Systems—these and similar-sounding machine shops are springing up everywhere. It seems the word is out: digital is the way to go, and for good reason. Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) promise efficiency and visibility like never before. The question is, how
to get there? 

Sharing insights 

Jeff Rizzie has some ideas. The director of Digital Enablement-Global Services at Mebane, N.C.-based Sandvik Coromant

offers a simple example of how IIoT-based sensor technology can help manufacturers reduce waste and become more productive. 

“Take a typical coolant-fed drill,” he says. “Everyone’s using them these days, and when one breaks, it’s often because there was no cutting fluid coming out of the drill tip. Maybe there’s a chip stuck in the line, maybe the pump hasn’t caught up from the last tool change—whatever the reason, it can lead to catastrophic failure. But what if you could put a sensor in the drill body or holder that tells the machine tool to stop if that happens? Think how much time and headache that would save.”

A similar but more advanced example comes from what will probably be the subsequent operation: boring. Sandvik Coromant has offered its Silent Tools Plus line of boring tools for years, which monitor heat, vibration, tool centreline, and other factors, then display them on an external device such as a tablet or smartphone. And while this is cool stuff, it requires that a human be present to review the information and correct the process if problems occur, eliminating the opportunity for that Holy Grail of shop operations: lights-out machining. 

Connect and control

Enter CoroPlus Connected. According to Rizzie, it takes a giant step towards “conditional automation,” a smart architecture that allows CNC machine tools to consume whatever data is coming from the boring bar (and eventually other cutting tools) and make relevant decisions. For instance, if the control senses excessive heat or perhaps an overload situation, it takes steps to correct it, even if that means stopping the machining cycle.

“CoroPlus Connected works off the same Bluetooth technology as Silent Tools Plus but interfaces with a PLC that’s integrated with the machine controller,” says Rizzie. “It’s also machine agnostic and bidirectional, so even though we’ve just recently introduced it, we look forward to expanding its capabilities to include automatic tool offsetting and other process adjustments.”

Graphical information like that shown here eliminates the “what’s going on out there” guesswork common in many shops. IMAGE: Memex

Measuring excellence

Rizzie is well-known for promoting Sandvik Coromant’s MachiningInsights, a machine tool monitoring and data analytics platform that the company introduced to the North American market in 2018. David McPhail, president and CEO of Memex Inc. in Burlington, Ont., enjoys similar name recognition. Not only is the company recognized for its long-term support and promotion of the MTConnect data interchange standards, but is also the proud developer of the Merlin Tempus MES platform and its related smart manufacturing toolkit. 

Says McPhail, “if you look at the downtime in any shop, it’s generally attributable to five different buckets. The easiest of these to understand and the one that most shops focus on is the machine tool—is it running, is there an alarm condition, and so on. What we’ve found, though, is that the most downtime shops collect has nothing to do with the machine, but rather all the other related factors that impact productivity.”

These factors are what fill the other buckets, he adds. They could include missing raw material, a tooling kit that’s not yet ready, first-piece articles sitting in the inspection queue, or the fact that the operator called in sick that day. Machine monitoring software is a fine thing, McPhail notes, but it doesn’t collect all of the data needed to understand why OEE levels are lower than they should be.

Memex’s answer to this is its Merlin Performance Management Model (MPMM), part of the Merlin Tempus system mentioned earlier, which utilizes operator and machine input to track downtime reasons. Once collated, shop personnel can apply the Five Why techniques and similar Lean methodologies to find and fix the root causes. This approach, says McPhail, leads to a culture of “continuous kaizen” that drives improvements throughout the shop.

“Let’s face it, there are a lot of companies doing machine monitoring these days. But very few of them look at it as we do. A large part of digital manufacturing is putting tools into the hands of the people who make the decisions so that they can make better decisions. It’s about giving them complete visibility and doing so in a way that’s both relevant and easy to digest. Once they have that, they’re able to get all the stakeholders working towards a common objective. They can then create a project out of it, run it right into the ground until resolved, and then go on to the next one.” 

Shopfloor centred

Machine controls have come a long way since people were including “handscrew” or even “tape” in their shop’s name. Even in those days of yore, advanced functions such as “fuzzy logic” were making life easier for machine shops—at least those with certain brands of EDM—a feature that is only now becoming available to chip-making machinists. Gisbert Ledvon, director of business development for machine tools at Heidenhain Corp., Schaumburg, Ill., has been there through all of it. He’s a big fan of such digital technology. He’s also quite fond of visibility and problem solving. 

“I was always amazed at how inadequate most of the milling and lathe controls were in the past,” he says. “On the EDM side, however, you just answered a few questions—what material you’re cutting, the desired accuracy and surface finish, and which was most important, speed or electrode wear. The control would then analyze its data libraries, run everything through its algorithms, and develop the most effective machining approach.”

The new TNC7 from HEIDENHAIN is the next generation of CNC control. Based on the company’s Klartext language, it is said to offer a “new graphical programming concept developed from the ground up.” IMAGE: Heidenhain

That’s essentially what Heidenhain is doing today with its TNC7 CNC, and a whole lot more. Ledvon says the new control’s interface is equipped with a “slider” that mimics the functionality just described. The operator can decide which variables are most important, and the control will automatically adjust machining parameters accordingly.

Ledvon points to another feature, one that’s been available for some time now on Heidenhain controls: the ability to read sensor data from the machine tool and—similar to what Rizzie described with CoroPlus Connected—make decisions based on that information. 

“We call this our ACC [active chatter control] and AFC [adaptive feed rate control] options.Because Heidenhain provides the entire motion control system with our controls—meaning the scales, motors, encoders, and drives—we know the machine behavior and can collect data from all of these components, sometimes even without the use of sensors. If there’s any vibration or tool loading beyond predetermined values, the control knows this and will optimize the speeds and feeds to either correct those situations or stop the machine. Together with our Klartext programming code, intelligent probing cycles, integrated clamping devices, and other smart capabilities, we are able to fully support shops in their quest for digital machining solutions.” SMT

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