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Technology opens way to process improvement.

Search for answers at AMT conference shows how.

When end users and machine tool builders meet, there's sure to be both light and heat generated. Needs and wants have a way of mixing it up on the wish lists of both for the latest technological advances in manufacturing. That was true earlier this year when the AMT - The Association for Manufacturing Technology, McLean, VA, held its biennial Technology Forum. End users, builders, and suppliers of related products agreed that there needs to be more definition of processes and developments such as standards for reliability and maintainability requirements and "open architecture" in controls.

Here's a sampling of opinions expressed by attendees. Builders are being asked increasingly to become process engineers for their customers. One reason: it's difficult to find applications people in the marketplace. As a result the level of available technical expertise continues to be a concern with most agreeing that it is decreasing. What this means for builders is that machines must of necessity be "smarter" and easier to program and use.

What is needed is a mutual effort to discover process requirements, some noted. Machine builders say that of end users are searching for "off-the-shelf" solutions. Too often, however, they may fail to provide needed process information or overspecify machine requirements to the detriment of the machine selection process.

To fill the information void, builders are taking on more fixturing responsibility, requesting more information about processes and even samples of parts with prints, using extensive check lists to meet customer specs, and attempting to identify customer specs that are outdated and that preclude using new technologies. Some builders indicated they don't want to do turnkeys. Others are processing parts as part of the proposal, working out the process after machine purchases, and sending technicians and engineers out to do startup in the customer's plant.

Specific machine issues cited include the need for setup time reduction and training to make it happen. Technologies such as presetters, recalling part programs, pallet changers, and the like are available but are not being used to their fullest potential.

In general, machine builders feel that their machines are being underutilized, a trend that is being accentuated by the increasing complexity of machines and the decline of operator expertise in plants.

One point of view says that most reliability and maintainability (R&M) problems are due to poor communication of actual needs and use vs actual capability. Another says that most reliability issues are not machine related, but are caused by mismatch of the machine tool to the need, i.e. wrong application, poor fixturing, and the like.

Finding common ground

Whatever the case the automotive industry will continue to drive the adoption of R&M guidelines. To make them work, standards must be established in the definition of common terms, for example, chip-to-chip and tool-to-tool times, rapid rates, feedrates, incidents, customer faults, and what constitutes "true failures." Machine utilization tends to be specific to each customer. In other words, standards provide some basis and common ground, but the customer is the boss and sets his own standards based on his applications and needs.

For their part, customers must track problems and provide information to builders. They must fight the tendency to "purchase" rather than "invest" in technology and track the true cost of ownership of that technology.

Chip removal continues to be a concern with chips not falling to the bottom of containment shielding. Using less coolant may compound the chip removal problem, but is cited as a desirable option in view of growing governmental regulation and the cost of coolant disposal. For the same reasons, dependence on hydraulics is lessening.

Open architecture in CNC controls continues to generate as many questions about what it is as what it can do. Obviously, questions raised here are answered in many different ways by products currently on the market. The opinions cited indicate only what was "top of the mind" of a small number of users and builders at this conference. End users at the conference volunteered that open architecture gives the user the ability to modify or write custom software on the machine processor without having to go back to the builder for program changes. One builder indicated a need for two processors, one to control the machine and one to handle third party software applications. Others expressed concern over the level of liability of builders. Who has ultimate responsibility for the system after modification of the software? Another expressed concern about what happens when customers have the ability to tamper with motion control software. Still others cited the need to eliminate proprietary motion control cards. What is the reliability of such "open" systems? And finally who will set the standard or define it? AMT?

The experts had taken their turn in a panel discussion on open architecture earlier in the day. Here's what they had to say:

Sam Easley, senior technical specialist, The Boeing Company, Hazelwood, MO, offered his definition of "open" as allowing complete access to PC-based control without limits and the ability to write his own programs. Boeing has retrofitted a 5-axis CNC mill with an open architecture controller (OAC) for high speed machining of large aluminum parts and has applied open architecture controls in a production environment with both low and high speed milling machines.

Choices offered

James R Fall, president and CEO, Manufacturing Data Systems Inc (MDSI), Ann Arbor, MI, explained how "software is the best solution" with MDSI's OpenCNC software. Open architecture controls address manufacturing needs by offering end users choices in how to get information about manufacturing processes to the people who need it. Manufacturing needs include reduction in machine tool downtime, reduction in meantime to repair, reduction of operating expenses, increased quality, reduced cycle times, increased flexibility, and increased return on manufacturing assets. MDSI's OpenCNC software is designed to provide the user with choice in hardware, software, data access and distribution, and integration and support. In the process, it can upgrade and extend the productive life of existing machine tools, protect part program libraries, and increase machine productivity.

Scott Hibbard, vice president Machine Tool Industry Group, Indramat Div, Mannesmann Rexroth, offered "yet another definition of" open architecture controls. They should be supported by multiple vendors, be modular, offer a path to upgrade, access everything required, and reduce costs. As device intelligence has worked its way down, PCs have become very smart and device independent; drives have become intelligent and servers less smart. He foresees the day when proprietary hardware will gradually begin going away. In this scenario, users will have flexibility in selecting from many vendors for support, running their own software, following a well marked out upgrade path, and doing it without compromising productivity.

Jeffrey Kao, manager technical marketing, GE Fanuc Automation NA allowed as how every one of its top 20 customers had experimented with some form of open CNC. GE Fanuc's latest "i" series of controls have been reduced to a quarter of the size of former controls. As a result ordinary PCs and operating systems are replacing conventional CNC display stations without change to CNC performance or reliability, leading to integration with CNCs, PLCs, networks, and third party products. Other innovations include use of a single fiber optic cable for both high data transfer (50 Mhz) and high noise immunity. Two Open CNC basic operation packages - one for milling the other for turning - were also described as well as the ease of system integration using GE Fanuc's Cimplicity MMI for CNC.

Open is as open does

Sal Spada, senior analyst, Automation Research Corp, Dedham, MA, described a future in which open architecture systems make information the operative strategic asset. Everything from Web-based customized manufacturing to complete openness in CNC business are possible in a dynamically changing technology. Emerging trends include PC-based human machine interface, open networks, remote diagnostics, emphasis on software and services leading to more cooperative partnering with customers, other companies, and R&D consortia and alliances. In his vision of the future, information technology will have the highest priority. Manufacturing data will be integrated with business information systems. Suppliers will be actively engaged in open architecture activities. Vendor alliances with third party software providers will be imperative. Proprietary platforms will be a disadvantage to suppliers, and vendors without open systems will lag technologically.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Association for Manufacturing Technology's biennial Technology Forum
Publication:Tooling & Production
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Previous Article:PC fusion powers CNC to next level.
Next Article:Controls, software were out in full force at IMTS.

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