Regardless of current economic conditions, productivity remains the primary engine of business growth. In a global economy, the same types of products are manufactured in countries that have widely varying labor costs and regulatory environments. In this competitive arena, the position of American manufacturing depends on the intelligent application of new technology.
In the metalworking industry, more efficient production is an outgrowth of improvements in machine tools, related control systems and the strategies whereby these elements are integrated to create improved manufacturing processes. Mazak Corporation (Florence, Kentucky) continues to predicate its business on a firm conviction that the future of manufacturing belongs to companies willing to make the investments necessary to keep pace with the latest technology.
In recent years, this technological trend has taken the form of multi-process machines with sophisticated monitoring and control systems. The ultimate purpose of marrying advanced hardware and software is to achieve a fully automated and more reliable manufacturing process. Mazak's vision presupposes the advent of "Cyber Factories" in which actual machine parameters and performance are monitored virtually from remote locations. This, in turn, will allow a substantial reduction in human intervention and more accurate production planning.
Mazak's two-pronged response to the productivity challenge includes a new generation of multi-process machine tools designed to operate via an interactive control system. The heart of this control system is the e-Tower that combines the functions of a CNC with PC and multimedia capabilities. This device supports interactive production scheduling via the shop's internal network, monitors machine operation and provides job status updates in real time. Additionally, the e-Tower gives operators quick access to all machine operation and maintenance manuals on screen, as well as a virtual training program that covers all aspects of machine utilization. This includes tool and fixture selection, machine setups, programming, cutting simulation, prove-out and troubleshooting. The system's animated instructional programs are supported by both "voice over" and on-screen, written information.
A particularly important feature of this control system is its visual monitoring capability. The system incorporates three cameras, including two that allow the machining envelope and the ATC to be viewed on the e-Tower's screen. A third camera that is moveable may be positioned by the operator to show specific problems that might be located in blind spots. These images may be instantaneously transmitted to a third party at a remote site, such as one of Mazak's technical service centers.
In many cases, this visual capability eliminates the need for a shop to wait for arrival of a service technician to diagnose the problem. With direct communications and visual feedback available, many problems may be corrected without undue delays. Machine operators can also enter their own data related to various aspects of observed operations. This allows other operators to access information useful for optimizing the process. Additionally, a cell phone link between the machines and off-site personnel provides instant notification via e-mail of production status or machine alarms.
Mazak's multi-axis Integrex machines are designed to address the growing trend in manufacturing toward shorter product life cycles and the attendant switch from mass production to small or medium runs. Incorporating five-axis capabilities, these machines are designed to produce finished parts with only a single setup.
By combining this single-machine concept with the e-Tower's automatic monitoring and diagnostic system, it's possible for a shop to completely automate the production of prototypes and other short-run parts. This is true regardless of the number of machines operated. While conventional machine tools will continue to dominate mass-production applications, Mazak's new technology addresses the growing demand for manufacturing agility and just-in-time delivery. As such, it represents a point of entry to the totally automated cyber-factory of the future.