The future of Five Axis

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By Kip Hanson

Given all the buzz over Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and a few other acronyms that have grown commonplace in this magazine and others over the past decade, it makes a person wonder: what’s next? How can manufacturing grow even more advanced than it already is, and how will it impact the daily task of making stuff? 

These questions are relevant no matter what make or model machinery sits on your production floor but are especially applicable to CNC machine tools that are already quite advanced—five-axis machining centers. 

Open Possibilities
Visit the Okuma America Corporation website or talk to one of its salespeople and you’ll learn about all manner of features that make machining more productive. There’s the company’s Collision Avoidance System (CAS), which does exactly what its name describes—avoids crashes. The Machining Navi function detects chatter and automatically makes spindle speed adjustments to minimize it. Similarly, SERVONAVI adjusts machine servo response based on workpiece weight, even as parts grow lighter during the machining process. Super-NURBS helps increase surface accuracy, a function especially important with the complex geometries common to five-axis machining. 

Yet as Okuma machining centers product specialist Errol Burrell points out, there’s just one problem: none of these are specific to five-axis machining centers. “We offer these and many of our other advanced functions across all our equipment platforms.”

With a double-column construction and a thermos-friendly design, Okuma’s MU-5000V vertical machining centre is said to achieve high efficiency and high productivity in five-axis, multi-sided machining. IMAGE: Okuma America

Burrell also notes that the last on this list—Super NURBS—is now called Hyper Surface. “We’ve made several improvements to the technology itself, and also made it possible to reprocess the program directly on the control itself,” he says. “At the same time, we’ve enhanced the user interface. It’s much simpler to use now than with previous versions.”

Again, it’s not specific to five-axis machining, but is certainly useful for many of its applications. As for AI, Okuma is using it to diagnose feedback from various sensors in the machine tools and alert the user to potential problems with the spindle, bearings, and other critical areas. 

But maybe such advanced features aren’t such a big deal to the majority of the machining world.
Yes, there are plenty of shops investing in ever more capable five-axis and multitasking machinery, but how many are actually climbing aboard the Industry 4.0 bandwagon, let alone driving it? Who of you is weaving a digital thread, collecting and analyzing process data, automating your programming and setup activities, leveraging in-machine probing systems for process control, and using it all to achieve the Holy Grail of manufacturing: unattended operation. 

Burrell and many industry experts agree: shops overall have been very slow on the uptake. “It was around ten years ago that Industry 4.0 became the latest buzzword,” he says. “And while it’s grabbing hold in some of the larger manufacturing companies, I haven’t seen it take off in the small to medium shops.”

Smooth Operator
Be that as it may, shops that embrace the cutting edge will be the most likely to continue cutting metal, and do so more profitably. And when they do, they will find that AI has begun playing an increasingly important role in process optimization. “Smooth Ai Spindle detects vibration, automatically determines how much is tolerable based on predefined limits, and then tweaks the spindle speed up or down as needed to produce an acceptable surface finish,” says Tom Shannon, district sales manager for Canada at Mazak Corporation. 

Like Burrell, Shannon emphasizes that Smooth Ai Spindle is
not limited to five-axis machining centres, nor are most of Mazak’s other advanced technologies. “Industry 4.0 and all its many components play a role in the wider machining realm,” he adds.  

From Mazak’s perspective, these components include the Smooth Machining Configurator (SMC) and Smooth Corner Control, Smooth Link for remote monitoring, and according to its website, Mazak also offers an application programming interface (API) that “allows CAM software to seamlessly access data from its MAZATROL Smooth machine controls. The CAM software then uses that data to generate extremely accurate part program simulations.” 

The compact DVF 5000 machining center from DN Solutions and distributed in Canada by Ferro Technique promises “world class productivity and reliability” for simultaneous five axis machining operations.
IMAGE: Ferro Technique

The Next Generation
Andrew Sweeting, applications manager at machine tool distributor and service provider Ferro Technique in Mississauga, Ont., says they can break down the feature requests they’re seeing for five-axis machines into two broad categories—automation and ease of use. The first of these is directly tied to chronic labor shortages as well as machine uptime and efficiency, suggests Sweeting, noting there are a
multitude of solutions both available and in the pipeline. 

“Currently, DN Solutions offers a variety of automation options for its DVF line of five-axis machines, from simpler double pallet changers to multi-level, multi-pallet stocker systems,” he says. “And Ferro Technique has recently partnered with RoboJob, which has an option for their Mill-Assist Essential lineup that allows stocking of up to 40 vises, with each one potentially having a different part and program.”

In addition to machine tending, machine monitoring is an increasing trend in the automation category, he explains, especially for shops pursuing a lights-out manufacturing strategy. The MTConnect communication standard has proven to be the most flexible in this respect, allowing dashboards to monitor multiple machines from different manufacturers. Further, it does not rely on human interaction but rather pushes information from the machine directly, giving manufacturers a clearer picture of their true efficiency.

“If spindles aren’t turning, that company isn’t making money,” says Sweeting. “By having historical machine data, companies can better predict failure points and proactively respond.” 

As noted, ease of use is similarly important. Five-axis machines are inherently complicated and subject to more crashes due to human error than their more basic three-axis counterparts. To ensure that a program and process are safe to run on the machine, software packages like Autodesk’s CAMplete TruePath are essential for error-free code. 

Says Sweeting, “CAMplete will take the native file format from just about anyone’s CAM software and simulate it on a virtual machine. Gouging, crashes, overtravel limits, and tool interference are all checked before even posting the code. The software also provides simulations and post-processors for DN Solutions, Brother, and other machine tool brands. Making the code safe in an effortless way and the ability to run it on a control that’s familiar to the operator, whether it’s Heidenhain, Fanuc, Siemens, or Mitsubishi, is critical to ease of use for five-axis machines.” SMT

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