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The all-American system's system.

The all-American system's system

With all this "buy-mine-because-I'm-just-like-you' hype these days, I am becoming even more firmly committed to buy quality and service first (they're inseparable), performance second, cost maybe third, innovation fourth, and phony provincialism dead last. Sure, how I stand with my friends is important to me, but I sit on my bottom line. And my bottom was never more vulnerable.

This is a little letter of complaint to my friends in the machine-tool industry. If buy American is so damned important to some of you, why isn't there an all-American system for me to buy? I mean a system where the machines, the controls, the software, the service, etc, all come from the same general territory, they all work well together, and the system solves the specific production problem I want to solve. Not one where you have to lasso eight companies who don't like each other very much, and lock them in a room until they come up with a compromise system that doesn't really solve your problem either efficiently or economically.

Well, lucky for us all, there is one company that is buying American exclusively. (No exceptions!) And putting the pieces together into a smooth-running system. It's a well-known group--our government; specifically, the US Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards, National Engineering Laboratory, Center for Manufacturing Engineering, Gaithersburg, MD.

Or, much less formally, it's three remarkable guys--John Simpson, Bob Hocken, and Jim Albus--the nucleus of a movement to save the US manufacturing community from destroying itself with needless infighting.

They are buying American because they have to; they're owned by a bunch of fanatic superpatriots--you and me! Their mission in simplest terms is to take one of every machine tool, robot, control system, etc, in the US and prove to us all that they can be made to work together effectively via a generic (public-domain) interface system. Because they don't have the authority to stomp all of us into abiding with a standard not of our choice, they are going to use a soft-sell approach--make something good enough that we can't refuse to use it!

When these three got the idea five years ago to marry John's and Bob's expertise in metrology with Jim's robot know-how, they were pretty much all alone. Their grandiose scheme was treated mostly with disdain by the industry. Now, after fighting and scratching for appropriations, contributions of machinery and industry talent, they have finally achieved a "critical mass.' They have demonstrated that what they're proposing works and can be made practical.

The proof was a machining-cell demo I attended in November at NBS. At the same moment, they were demonstrating at Autofact 5 their IGES system that for the first time allows 12 different CAD/ CAM systems to talk together and swap part programs. (See Advanced Manufacturing Technology section for details.)

The irony is that now dozens of machine makers are rushing to donate equipment and, more importantly, engineering manpower, so that they too can plug into the NBS network before it leaves them electronically out in the cold. (Thanks a lot guys, but where were you when they were trying to get this baby off the ground?)

The benefits are now very obvious. One manufacturer, who loaned them a machine and a man, got back a detailed list from NBS in six months of 24 key design changes he should add to make his machine much more compatible with automated systems. He quickly responded with a second improved machine. Now that's government aid like it should be!

The people behind the progress

To more properly tell this story, I need to introduce the key characters. Dr John A Simpson, director of the Center for Manufacturing Engineering, has a rich research background in dimensional metrology, electron optics, and mechanics. Two of his primary goals are to prove that not only can FMS do anything a machinist can do, but that it can be made affordable for us small companies (fewer than 100 employees) who produce three fourths of the discrete parts made in the US. He's trying to solve the dilemma that small guys like me will inevitably need FMS to survive, but we buy our machines one at a time and will want to be able to integrate them simply and effectively without hiring 3000 programmers.

John tells me he now has a $6-million annual operating budget plus $5 million /yr for capital improvements, a dozen key industrial research associates (donating engineers), eight companies loaning major machines and robots, and six universities with grants for supporting research.

Dr Robert J Hocken, chief of the Automated Production Technology Div, has been associated with Dr Simpson for a long time, and together they developed a three-axis coordinate measuring machine that helps characterize and correct machining errors. Yet they don't really believe adaptive control is the answer --statistical diagnostics after the fact, ala Deming and others. Their favorite tongue twister is "deterministic metrology' which means to so fully instrument a machine that once it makes a good part, the controls will not let it make even one bad part. In other words, they want to get inside the machine's "head' in real time and "psychoanalyze' it as it runs. Why play detective and try to analyze parts days later to deduce trends?

The third key player on the team is Dr James S Albus, acting chief of the Industrial Systems Div. Dr Albus, "Mr Robot,' has a national reputation for his work in brain modeling, control theory, and manipulator design. He writes sexy robotics articles for magazines like Omni, BYTE, etc, and gets quoted a lot in important places.

Which brings up a disturbing point. One of John Simpson's toughest problems is keeping guys like Bob, Jim, and their gang down on the NBS farm. They could double or triple their incomes by going to work for private industry tomorrow morning, or starting their own companies and making megabucks. It's happened already--three years ago Gordon Van der Brook left to start Automatix.

Proving the pudding

But regardless of the idealism of these three proponenets, proving that the darned thing works was their mission in November. With up to 30 programmers and dozens of staff people slaving all summer, they were able to come up with a demo work cell consisting of a White-Sundstrand Series 20 Omnimill CNC machining center served by a Cincinnati Milacron T3 hydraulic robot, and a Hardinge Superslant CNC turning center with a Bendix AA gantry robot using special NBS grippers. A wire-guided, radio-controlled (for in-flight reprogramming) cart handles part transfer.

Computer power is vast, starting with a VAX central-facility computer. The basic NBS philosophy is for modular, multi-tiered (up to eight) hierarchical software for flexibility that yields some very advanced control features that are too complex to detail here. Everything is "data driven' in that all machine actions are based on data-base info on the part design--change the data base to change the part. For the demo, five workfloor computers were designated: machine-tool controller, workstation controller, real-time control system, watch-dog safety computer, and NBS vision system. They filled in the missing hardware elements in the network's chain of command with computer simulation. It took 34 new interfaces to link all the demo subsystems together.

The 3-D vision system is their first step in true sensory interaction, enabling the Milacron T3 robot to become "intelligent.' The T3 will soon have force sensors in its grippers to add the sense of touch. The T3 was chosen for its long reach and high load capability so that it can eventually be used to swap tool magazines on the Omnimill.

Unfortunately for the NBS demo, the choice of a hydraulic robot for the key player almost led to disaster. A power-line spike from an unanticipated power-company switchover test, right in the middle of the demo, tripped everything electronic, and the robot lost all of its "intelligence' in a millisecond. Suddenly, it was "bleeding to death' before our eyes, its 2-ton arm loaded with years of unique and expensive technology was restart it without knowing where it was restart it without knowing where it was in its program could have only made things worse. Luckily, a well-programmed engineer jammed a metal stool under one robot elbow just in time and the NBS vision system averted a very embarrassing "black eye.' It was a classic case of Murphy's Law.

But when the robot and friends had recovered their composure, the system did perform well. The robot cart delivered a random array of parts, the robot sensed both their shape and height, carefully setting them on his worktable, and eventually feeding them into the machining center for milling.

The net result was that we all went home believers; believing that the NBS people could really do what they have set out to do, that they have a very worthy cause, and that this country has a government that really cares about us little guys in metalworking.

If you would like some more info from NBS on this project, circle E20.

Photo: Intelligent NBS robot takes a quick look at the "fast food' on his "breakfast' tray.

Photo: Dr John Lyons, NBS acting deputy director, told us their key goal is to make FMS affordable for us little guys.

Photo: Model of the complete FMS system NBS hopes to have fully integrated by 1988.

Photo: Fast-moving NBS engineer saves the 2-ton hydraulic robot arm from mashing its gripper and vision system during a power outage.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:National Engineering Lab FMS interface
Author:Doaks, Joe
Publication:Tooling & Production
Article Type:column
Date:Feb 1, 1984
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