Getting Digital

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by Kip Hanson

Three industry experts offer insights on our brave new manufacturing world


Industry 4.0 got you curious? Wondering about the Industrial Internet of Things, and what it all means? Or maybe you’d rather just steer clear of all this “big data” stuff and focus on what you do best—making parts? Still, machine tools are getting smarter while software systems grow more powerful. Every part of the shop is becoming interconnected and cloud-capable, with machine controls talking to mobile devices, mobile devices talking to toolholders, toolholders talking to the tool crib, the tool crib talking to machine controls. Like it or not, manufacturing is changing. Big time. 

Get going
Perhaps the most challenging aspect to all this change is the actual pace of change. Digital manufacturing isn’t like some new CAM package or multitasking machine that you can learn with a week or two of training. It’s a widespread restructuring of the entire shop floor, a years-long endeavour that starts with the programming office and ends at the shipping door. And by the time it’s done (or even before you’re done), guess what? Some smarter, faster, or more pervasive technology will have come along. Time to retool. 

The abilitity to solve troublesome machining problems is only a small piece of all that Industry 4.0 has to offer.  Sandvik Coromant“Anyone looking to be on the bleeding edge of all this had best be prepared for some starts and stops, some retracing of your steps and a fair amount of figuring things out on your own,” says Jeff Rizzie, director of digital machining at Sandvik Coromant. “The technology’s changing so quickly—especially on the software and analytics side—that it will be a long time before any preconfigured, cookie-cutter solutions become available.” 

Cookie cutter or not, the shops that will be the most successful in the future are the ones embracing digital manufacturing today, he adds. And the best way to do this is to start small—implement an improvement project, learn from it, retrace your steps if you must, and then start on the next project. Rizzie might suggest one of Sandvik Coromant’s CoroPlus solutions—Machining Insights, perhaps, or one of the company’s new predictive maintenance-capable Coromant Capto DTH Plus driven toolholders—but it could just as well be remote machine monitoring, offline presetting, adopting a collaborative robot, installing a wireless network on the shop floor…the list is long, the opportunities nearly endless. 

“We hosted a roundtable discussion nearly two years ago with leaders from Microsoft, Okuma, Rockwell Automation, Vimana, Mastercam, and others,” he says. “Nearly all agreed that if you’re not on the Industry 4.0 bus within five years, you’re going to be too late. That wasn’t meant to scare people, but to stress the urgency of getting started. As our company president Sean Holt said during that same meeting, ‘Think big, start small, move rapidly.’ That remains good advice today.” 

The snowflake effect
Toolpath simulation and verification software provider CGTech Inc. wasn’t at that meeting, but Vericut product manager Gene Granata will tell you that he and the rest of CGTech share in its vision, starting with the importance of data. “One of the things we’re trying to do is increase availability of machining data,” he says. “This might be tooling information, machine models or cutting parameters—all of this exists in various places and it’s our job to bring it into the machining simulation easily and seamlessly.”

Internal machining data is just as important, he notes, adding that there are far too many shops that settle for unpredictable processes. “For example, we’ve worked with customers that have a whole row of the exact same machine tool, but because the control settings might be slightly different from one to the next or the machines weren’t all set up the same way, one or more behave in a unique manner,” he says. “We call it the snowflake effect.”

Machinists have long taken idiosyncrasies like this in stride, he says, and even today deal with the problem by “just knowing” that machine #5 requires a little handholding. A better solution, says Granata, is to leverage Industry 4.0 technology to extract relevant machine data directly from the control and use it to build more accurate digital twin machine simulations. Doing so assures that the simulation shows NC programmers exactly how CNC machines will react with their NC programs, cutting tools and machining processes to provide consistent results from machine to machine, reducing reliance on tribal knowledge. “Programmers have a hard enough job without this kind of variability, and there’s simply no reason to accept it anymore.”

Smooth operator? According to Mazak, the Smooth control platform delivers breakthrough manufacturing innovations. MazakThere’s more to the story than machine variability, however—there’s also in-process machining data, and the possibility of comparing what you thought would happen during any given turning or milling process with what actually did happen, then using that information to improve. This concept is at the heart of Industry 4.0, a concept that CGTech and suppliers everywhere are eagerly pursuing.

“Our Force optimization, for instance, analyzes cutting conditions and toolpaths and uses them to automatically update the program with optimal machining parameters,” Granata says. “But what if you could carry it to the next level? What if you could understand whether those values were effective, and determine what else can be done to improve productivity or tool life? With machine sensors and real-time metrology, it’s quite possible that we can answer these questions, along with a few our customers haven’t even thought of yet.”

Smooth sailing
It’s clear that machine tool builders have a big part to play in all this; the good news is that most of them are stepping up to the Industry 4.0 plate. Mazak, for example, has introduced a variety of new features in its Smooth control designed to make data management both easy and transparent. Its integration with Microsoft Windows improves file handling and networking capabilities. Advanced tool data functionality assures that the machine has all of the information needed for whatever tool is loaded in the spindle. A host of on-board optimization cycles improve machining effectiveness, resulting in shorter cycle times and better part quality. 

Accurate simulation of post-processed G-code shows how a machine will react to the NC program, preventing costly mistakes, crashes and unexpected machine motions. CGTechThe company is also taking steps to increase machine reliability. “Instead of hoping to avoid failures, shops increasingly look to automated systems and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies for ways to monitor their equipment and report wear before it causes critical faults,” says Joe Sanders, process development coordinator for Mazak. “Additionally, organized, strategic condition monitoring provides opportunities to plan proactive maintenance, so it fits around peak production periods. An AI-based monitoring solution can use a baseline assessment of a spindle, for example, to determine when performance is heading toward a critically impaired state. This can reduce downtime and the production of out-of-tolerance parts.”

If you’re rethinking your viewpoint on the Industrial Internet of Things, the digital thread, artificial intelligence (AI) and all the rest, you’re not alone. Manufacturers of all sizes are taking steps—some small, others gigantic leaps—to understand how today’s technology can help them improve operations. And while it might seem daunting at times, Industry 4.0 should be an exciting prospect for all of us. That’s because machinists and fabricators alike thrive on their ability to produce parts more efficiently and more accurately, and what better way to do so than gaining unprecedented visibility into the manufacturing process, presenting opportunities to continuously improve every aspect of a shop’s turning, milling, printing, bending, forming, and cutting capabilities? That’s what Industry 4.0 brings to the table. SMT

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