Editor's Note: Watch a YouTube video at the bottom of this story that shows how ITAMCO's Joel Neidig is using Microsoft's Hololens in the manufacturing process.
One nice aspect of the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), which runs September 12-17, at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois, is that it’s a blend of the “here and now” and the “what’s to come.”
This month’s cover shot offers a glimpse of manufacturing technology that currently fits more appropriately in the what’s-to-come category. It shows Dave Hinderlider, plant manager and lead automation engineer for ITAMCO, donning a Microsoft HoloLens holographic computer. The Plymouth, Indiana, gear manufacturer believes this technology will eventually enable it to streamline collaboration among its engineers in the design of new gear assemblies by bringing them together on the shop floor to review, refine and manipulate 3D holographic models of key components. The company is also developing a process to use HoloLens technology to program collaborative robots that will build gearboxes and gear assemblies. (Read the sidebar below to learn more.)
In fact, you can try out this technology at the show, as well as discover other disruptive technologies that have the potential to impact machining and manufacturing in the years to come. You can also kick the tires of new equipment and consider new approaches that can be integrated into your processes right away to make your shop more efficient and effective.
The following are a few technologies you’ll see at IMTS that are a mix of both scenarios. Although they are still in the emerging and/or advancing stage, they can be applied immediately to enhance your capabilities and competitiveness.
Additive’s More Prominent Presence
One of the more significant advances for additive manufacturing (AM) this year involves IMTS itself. New at the 2016 show is a pavilion devoted entirely to additive manufacturing—one of just 10 technology-themed pavilions. To be sure, that pavilion is small, because the use of additive manufacturing or 3D-printing-style processes for making production parts is itself still relatively small. However, any question about AM’s applicability to production parts is now in the past. Additive manufacturing is an established, accepted method for making functional components. Production parts are a possibility that manufacturers in the aerospace and medical industries in particular are now demonstrating. Meanwhile, other possibilities that are relevant to manufacturers overall include using AM to make jigs, fixtures, molds and other production tooling, as well as using it to refine and validate a part’s design through 3D-printed, short-term production parts before the investment in full-scale production in some other process begins.
How far will additive manufacturing go? In part, the advance of this technology will determine this. The speed and capability of these machines that make parts additively is still improving. More fundamentally, different mechanisms for forming 3D parts with metal are still in the earliest moments of their application by users, meaning the full scope of their applicability and usefulness has not yet been found. Different systems and methods are being developed for monitoring and understanding these parts as they form in the additive build, so as to validate parts’ repeatability from one build to the next.
But at the same time, how far this technology goes will also be determined by the manufacturers currently exploring its possibilities. At its best, AM is not a solution for parts already in production today, because, for the most part, those parts are already being made effectively through some other process. AM is, instead, an enabler for types of parts that don’t yet exist because they previously haven’t been practical to manufacture. Those types of parts include intricate single components that replace entire assemblies, components with organic or lattice forms combining high strength with low weight, and components with complex internal structures or passages sealed inside. Additive manufacturing makes all of these geometric forms easy to generate. Meanwhile—and this might prove to be the greatest value of all—additive manufacturing also makes it possible to work with metals we don’t routinely employ today, often because they are difficult to machine. AM makes a part so near to net shape that the machining requirements are often slight.
Today, a given manufacturer may or may not be ready to explore or realize promises such as these. But these very promises suggest why the use of additive manufacturing is all but certain to advance. For now, that given manufacturer likely is ready to explore one of additive manufacturing’s more immediate and accessible promises: namely, using an additive machine to generate fixtures and other tooling, as well as prototypes and short-run production parts, so that CNC machine tools and other valuable pieces of established manufacturing technology do not have to be burdened with this work.
To be sure, robotics are not new to the manufacturing scene, but use of robotic technology is increasing. This is especially true in North America. According to the Robotic Industries Association trade group, robot orders and shipments in North America set new records in 2015, in which a total of 31,464 robots valued at $1.8 billion were ordered from North American companies. This represents an increase of 14 percent in units and 11 percent in dollars over 2014.
The association says this trend is continuing into 2016. A total of 7,406 robots valued at approximately $402 million were ordered from North American companies during the first quarter of 2016. The number of units ordered in the first three months of the year is a new record among opening quarters, growing 7 percent over the same period in 2015.
Today’s robots are faster and more intelligent than in years past. They are also becoming increasingly viable for use in small-batch/high-mix production. This is evident in vision technology as exemplified by high-speed, high-definition cameras that offer improved part recognition capability for picking operations. Offline robot programming tools are becoming more powerful and intuitive, too.
However, there are recent developments that have made the integration and deployment of the technology more efficient to better enable shops to realize the benefits of unattended or even lights-out processes. For example, a current trend in manufacturing robotics is the application of collaborative robots, or “cobots.” These robots use sensor technology that enables them to function safely alongside humans in a shared work environment. That means no more isolating fencing is needed to separate worker and robot. If the robot inadvertently makes contact with a person, it stops its motion to prevent injury from occurring. In fact, we’ve published a few articles about shops that are currently leveraging cobot technology.
The potential of this new robotic technology has not been lost on the global community. Contributors from all over the world have collaborated to create the ISO/TS 15066 technical specification, which was published earlier this year. This specification offers guidance for manufacturers and robotics integrators as to how better to perform important risk evaluations for collaborative robots. This guidance was not offered in the previous ISO standard for robots, largely because collaborative robot technology was still in the early stages of development at the time when that standard was written.
But automation extends beyond robotics, and IMTS attendees will find multiple examples of this at the show. Although the goal of automation is to set a human being free from having to perform repetitive tasks, such tasks do not always require sophisticated robotic systems. In machine shops, for example, relatively simple solutions like tool presetters, pallet changers, machine tool probes and even inventory management systems all offer ways to eliminate repetitive, time-consuming tasks.
In addition, consider the concept of automating the thought process: that is, the automation of gathering, analyzing and responding to useful information. Significant breakthroughs in machine communication are allowing manufacturers to take steps forward in automation that do not necessarily change a process, but automates the collection of data. This results in increases in speed, quality and overall manufacturing productivity.
Practical Application of IIoT Concepts
Perhaps the most important advance in the automatic collection of data is the emergence of machine monitoring systems. These systems enable manufacturing companies to:
Instantly check the status of every connected machine.
Respond quickly to machine-issued alarms and alerts, thus preventing disruptions in production.
Track trends that reveal problems such as excessive setup time or unplanned downtime.
Display real-time measures of machine productivity such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), part counts, uptime and other performance metrics.
Companies implementing a machine monitoring system routinely report a 5 to 15 percent gain in productivity simply from having information from the monitoring system displayed as a dashboard on large, flat-screen TVs mounted in shop areas.
Machine monitoring is a prominent example of the software applications greatly facilitated by interoperability standards such as MTConnect, which debuted at IMTS 2008. MTConnect is a set of open, royalty-free standards that uses Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Internet Protocol (IP) technology as a common communication link to publish machine data over networks. In the simplest terms, MTConnect translates the proprietary computer language of each machine into a common and simple internet-based language that can be used by data-acquisition and machine-monitoring software applications.
MTConnect is also significant because it enables the main characteristics that are critical to systems compatible with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). These systems must incorporate open software architecture, open protocols and open data models. Otherwise, proprietary elements will hinder users and developers of applications for the IIoT. This year, IMTS will feature a comprehensive exhibit of machine tool connectivity powered by MTConnect. In addition to machine monitoring, other applications on display will include predictive analytics, cloud computing and big data analytics.
Today, most manufacturing companies understand the need to integrate machinery and equipment with network sensors and software. This is the essence of the IIoT. However, achieving this objective becomes a practical matter of installing workable and effective systems where it counts—on the shop floor. For this reason, machine monitoring systems ought to be considered the gateway to the IIoT. Once a machine monitoring system is in place, a machine shop will have largely established the network infrastructure (including provisions for cyber security), the workforce discipline and the momentum to implement other aspects of data-driven manufacturing.
Top Shops: an IMTS Event
Results from our Top Shops benchmarking program support the notion that advanced shops are more likely to consider and then implement advanced manufacturing concepts and technologies such as those described above. In fact, examples of each of the three concepts covered in this article as well as others are found in our Top Shops Booth W-10 at the entrance to the West Hall, which is a collaborative display presented by Gardner Business Media (publisher of this magazine) and the sponsors of IMTS.
In addition to seeing new manufacturing concepts and leading technologies that are redefining how a modern machine shop operates, booth visitors will learn about business development and management strategies that will help their companies run more productively and profitably (metrics we track in our magazine’s annual Top Shops benchmarking survey). They can also see how their shops compare to other leading manufacturers based on a range of key benchmarking survey metrics that define upper-echelon “Top Shops.” Plus, they can visit the Top Shops Hall to learn more about past and present benchmarking Honors Program winners and see what sets them apart from others. Most importantly, they can come to the booth knowing that they’ll walk away with the knowledge and connections that will help their companies continue to grow, succeed and innovate.