The manufacturing technology industry is in flux right now as it seeks to find its way in the digital world, and the entire process chain necessitates the integration of suppliers who can respond to the needs of the industry. This situation has very little “history”, and so large end-customers and machine shops of all sizes are seeking assistance from suppliers, while the machine tool builders are likewise seeking to partner with developers and providers of hardware, software, communications, and controls, to bring to market the most-needed types of machines and technologies.
Within this general scenario, large manufacturers focus on the “big picture” as they link their production departments, often located in different cities or even countries throughout the supply chain, while small contract manufacturers with a dozen local customers wonders how this drive to the digital factory will impact their enterprise — and it will.
The good news is about the digitalization process now underway is that manufacturers already can use the IT, apps and communication devices in place in many of advanced machine tools, together with the rapidly emerging skill sets of new workers in the machine tool industry, to develop and implement the three basic levels of machine shop operations.
These levels are a) the communications hardware and protocols at the machine; b) the integration of inline machine production; and c) the data resident in the Cloud, which right now can be used in many ways to boost productivity through automated analytics of the shopfloor’s productivity; to enhance shopfloor flexibility through optimized methods of production; and to preserve data security by state-of-the-art software solutions.
In essence, the capture and manipulation of such data drives the productivity of a small shop or large production department in similar ways. The concept of your manufacturing seen as an eco-system, with information and control capabilities at all levels, can drive that “factory of the future” — and it can do so now.
From the CNC on your machines, whether they are number three in a mold shop or three hundred at a transmission plant, you can extract the pre-analytics that can be used to feed existing apps or to develop the most beneficial apps to suit your production scheme and workflow. The beauty of the app, whether you create your own, have a third-party integrator develop it or use existing solutions, is that it provides the hierarchy of information to your operator, line supervisor, plant operations personnel or global IT department in a similar manner. This scalability offers immediate benefit to manufacturers of all sizes and it does so, right now. For example, machine tool users can quickly and easily configure a CNC machine’s connections and ascertain its program status and operating mode. This will lead to increased manufacturing productivity, reliability and availability of the machine.
Cloud-based systems always raise the question of security issues, as the data flow in real time at high-speed and can be made accessible to many levels of information managers and operations personnel. It is critical that a thorough assessment of the access to that data precede the development of any communications protocol.
Digitalization is not necessarily a costly undertaking. First steps can be implemented quickly on the shopfloor, for example, by deploying small PCs like Raspberry Pi. Likewise, for the machine tool builder, the development of “digital twin” engineering — wherein a machine is fully designed, commissioned and test run in a virtual environment — is rapidly changing the playing field in this industry.
The number of connected machines is increasing exponentially and this is not simply engineering adornment: it is a necessary function for any manufacturer. Being able to determine quickly the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and conduct practical, beneficial predictive maintenance actions on your machines will contribute significantly to the production and profitability of your operation.
The management of today’s manufacturing shops and production departments are challenged to become aware of all these available technologies, and to chart a course for their implementation. This is not a “someday” scenario; it is a journey that is vital for shops of all sizes that want to remain competitive in today’s changing market.
My last bit of advice is to look at digitalization as an umbrella for secure shielding of smart data, not just big data. IIoT is the essential connectivity concept for all the elements of data on machine performance, materials flow, operations efficiency, and ultimately your overall productivity. It’s an exciting time in our business.
Ramona Schindler is the business development manager for the digitalization of machine tools at Siemens Industry, Inc.