Most manufacturing companies prefer to adopt new technology by starting small, accepting modest initial gains, and then adding more with expectations of big rewards later. MTConnect, it seems, follows a somewhat different path. Companies implementing this data standard are getting big results almost right away.
That’s because MTConnect enables them to unlock data from machine tools and other production equipment that reveals problems or bottlenecks that were difficult, if not impossible, to detect before. In many cases, fixing these problems can be relatively easy (for instance, immediately adjusting a production schedule or ordering timely maintenance). The results are better utilization of production equipment, more on-time deliveries, less guesswork about shop management and other benefits.
The experiences of two users of MTConnect are examples of this pattern. ITAMCO, a precision machining service and open gearing facility headquartered in Plymouth, Indiana, recently completed Phase 1 of its MTConnect-enabled machine monitoring program. The company can now extract data from 35 CNC machine tools, including gear grinding, milling, turning and shot-peening machines. According to Joel Neidig, the technology manager at ITAMCO and leading MTConnect proponent, the company’s ability to monitor these machines has reduced downtime by an average of 15 percent per month. All 150 machine tools in ITAMCO’s two facilities are slated to have MTConnect-compatible connections to the monitoring system by the end of 2013.
Located 40 miles northwest of ITAMCO in Valparaiso is Task Force Tips (TFT), a manufacturer of equipment used by firefighters. It has 18 machine tools of diverse types and brands monitored by an MTConnect-enabled system. This company’s product line involves numerous complex workpieces produced in widely varying batch sizes. Scheduling operations for smooth, consistent workflow has been a challenge for TFT. Nate Price, who has been deeply involved in the company’s implementation of MTConnect, says the monitoring system helps track part counts and production details in real-time. By reacting quickly to reports of machine faults or emergency stops issued by the system, TFT has improved its ability to stay on schedule while continually introducing new or customized products into the flow.
Both ITAMCO and TFT faced a learning curve when installing an MTConnect-enabled machine monitoring system, mainly because they were early adopters of this technology. The rapid appearance of significant benefits, however, easily justified their initial effort. More important, the results were so encouraging that the two companies are forging ahead with plans to expand their use of MTConnect-enabled applications.
For example, ITAMCO has connected eight machines to power monitors. The collected MTConnect data will be used to reduce power consumption by determining which operations draw the most energy so they can be executed during off-peak periods. The shop is also using MTConnect as a common data format for a Bluetooth-powered mobile device that was developed in-house but will be marketed commercially. Dubbed iBlue, this device has ports that connect to the user’s choice of a handheld hardness tester, a thermometer or a micrometer. Workpiece hardness, temperature and dimensions can be collected anywhere in the shop and sent wirelessly to a smartphone, tablet or computer.
TFT also has big plans for MTConnect. Now that all of its production machines are connected to the monitoring system, the company is adding more machine conditions that will be tracked, recorded and analyzed. Part counts and cycle times will soon be transmitted automatically to an evolving ERP system. The company is also preparing to integrate its tool presetters, bar feeders, high-pressure coolant systems and other peripheral devices to enable automatic communication with machine tool CNCs.
What’s Up with the Down Machine?
MTConnect is a set of open, royalty-free standards that uses XML and Internet Protocol technology as a common communication link to publish machine data over networks. In a nutshell, MTConnect translates the proprietary computer language of each machine into a common, simple, Internet-based language that can be used by a growing field of data acquisition and machine monitoring software applications. ITAMCO’s machine monitoring system, for example, is based on ShopViz, a suite of applications designed for MTConnect. It originated at TechSolve, a Cincinnati-based manufacturing technology research and development firm. Project managers at TechSolve recognized that industry’s acceptance of MTConnect would largely depend on the availability of software applications that create real value for end users in job shops and manufacturing plants. With this priority in mind, the firm initially focused on a readily deployable method for monitoring machine and job status at a glance.
The value of a machine monitoring application was readily apparent to Mr. Neidig and his father, Gary (a son of the company founder), when they first encountered MTConnect at the 2008 International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), where the standard made its debut. As Joel Neidig recalls, having a non-proprietary standard that enabled data communication across a network was “something we always wanted.”
At the time, ITAMCO had 30 different models of CNCs and machine tools from more than a dozen builders, so the prospect of easily and economically connecting them to an effective monitoring system seemed hopelessly remote. MTConnect, they surmised, could reverse this situation. More importantly, the Neidigs could also envision developing other valuable applications now that data could be accessed in a standard format.
Soon, the younger Mr. Neidig joined the MTConnect Technical Advisory Group. As the standard grew and matured, ideas for new applications continued to percolate in his mind. In the meantime, ITAMCO began working with TechSolve to install its monitoring system. This entailed putting MTConnect adapters on machine tools from Giddings & Lewis, Mazak, Okuma and other builders. Brands of CNCs involved included Mazatrol, Siemens and FANUC. An adapter is a customized software utility installed as a program inside the CNC that “adapts” codes, alarms, signals and other information issued by the CNC so that they are compatible with the corresponding MTConnect-specific terminology.
Another software utility, the MTConnect agent, collects data from the adapters and encodes it as XML, the data format that enables other software programs to access this data across a network (including the Internet for remote access). ITAMCO uses multiple agents embedded strategically on its shop network because of the volume of data they handle. ShopViz uses this data to create displays and reports that give managers a view of shopfloor activity. These include a main display called a dashboard that, like the instrument panel of a car, provides an at-a-glance summary of how the shop is running. By late 2011, 35 machines had been successfully connected to the monitoring system.
At several locations in ITAMCO’s Plymouth shop and satellite facility in nearby Argos, large, flat-screen displays have been mounted overhead where shop personnel can view this dashboard. However, any digital communication device within these buildings can log onto the shop’s network and open the ShopViz application to view the dashboard and open more-detailed reports. In fact, while this monitoring system was being installed, Mr. Neidig developed a smartphone application that enables these devices to dial up the Internet address of a machine tool’s CNC and access the data available through the MTConnect adapter. The iBlue wireless shop data transmitter is the latest MTConnect-inspired application that Mr. Neidig and his IT team have invented.
“Before MTConnect, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Mr. Neidig says. Managers realized that they needed to gain control over their production schedules to maintain profitability and customer satisfaction, but they didn’t know where the problems were in the workflow. Now, with the plant monitoring system, they can see problems on the shop floor through accurate, real-time data. For example, alarms alert the production manager that a machine is down via email, text or the shopfloor dashboard. Scheduling maintenance or diverting the workflow to another machine are options to keep the production schedule on time.
While the ability to react quickly to a disabled machine is valuable, prevention will be the real payoff, Mr. Neidig says. The ITAMCO staff can analyze patterns of downtime and decide to add another machine to the production line, upgrade or replace a machine, provide more operator training or adjust a machine’s maintenance schedule. And, just as easily, workflow can be re-organized to take advantage of underutilized machines.
All Fired up about Connectivity
Stewart McMillan, president of TFT, also “discovered” MTConnect at IMTS, but this time at the 2010 show. His reaction, Mr. Price remembers, was clear: “We need that.” Mr. McMillan had already taken his company nearly as far as possible with then-current technology for shop networking and integration. The shop’s infrastructure for sharing information was well developed. Machine shop personnel could look to a PC near every machine tool for all the information they need to set up, run, inspect and track any part. This system ensured that both the knowledge and wisdom regarding the best way to make every part was captured and shared.
What the system could not do was automatically tap into the critical data about machine status, cycle times, part counts and tool usage being generated during CNC operations. It was up to the operator to manually enter data about part counts and run times. Even with automation aids such as bar-code scanners and employee ID card readers, this process was slow, not error proof and almost always performed well after the fact because reporting intervals were usually once a shift.
“These drawbacks are especially problematic because TFT has many products and we typically produce parts in small batches,” Mr. Price says. Small batches make it difficult to determine accurately how much machine time is required for each part, he explains. This lack of verifiable information, in turn, makes costing and estimating less reliable and makes shop scheduling uncertain, he says. Bottlenecks and underutilization occurred often enough to be recognized as a serious problem.
So Mr. McMillan’s intense interest in MTConnect was understandable. And given his proclivity to aggressively adopt electronic technology to streamline shop operations, his decision to move quickly on setting up an MTConnect-enabled machine monitoring system was also understandable, Mr. Price says.
Early in 2011, TFT began working with System Insights to install its Vimana software application for monitoring and managing machine tool productivity. Vimana is designed to provide shop managers with a real-time snapshot of performance using easy-to-interpret dashboards. Other features of this software make it an appropriate choice for TFT.
For example, TFT was determined to get all machines used in production connected to the monitoring system right away. There would be no pilot program or phased implementation. This was a challenging order. Although TFT has only 18 CNC machines in production, this number includes 10 different types of machines ranging from HMCs to multitasking machines in a variety of configurations. A drill/tap machine and a multi-spindle screw machine are also on the list.
System Insights says this shop presented the most diverse array of machine types in its customer base.
In this case, however, Vimana proved capable because it uses a sophisticated classification engine to sort and categorize incoming MTConnect data to determine exact production and nonproduction time. This classification engine enables it to correctly interpret data that indicate when chipmaking is occurring, even though machine tools may vary as to the internal parameters used for this purpose.
Another important feature for TFT is automatic email or text message notification to report downtime, failures or other events of interest. Because several of TFT’s machines, such as an Index multi-spindle screw machine, often run unattended for long periods, a machine operator is usually in charge of more than one machine. Automatic notification ensures that a machine needing attention will not wait too long because the operator is preoccupied with duties at another machine.
Unlike ITAMCO, TFT does not use public display boards to show the machine monitoring dashboard. Instead, the dashboard can be viewed instantly at any of the PCs at each machine tool. Of course, any device permitted to log onto the network can access the data remotely.
TFT opted to use only one MTConnect agent on a network file server to pull data from all of the MTConnect adapters. System Insights recommended this approach because it facilitates centralized system management. The company says its open-source C++ agent is structured to handle a large number (“tens to hundreds”) of adapter connections. Because of the variety of CNC types in the shop, interfaces to the MTConnect adapters also vary. In some cases, the adapter simply translates the output of the proprietary data reporting capability of the control. In other cases, the adapter uses a hardware interface to the electrical I/O board inside the control panel.
A Promising Future
By using the same protocol to connect machine tools and collect data, MTConnect makes applications such as shop-wide machine monitoring possible. However, many other kinds of connections are possible. At ITAMCO, MTConnect is also used as the common platform for data collection via iPods issued to all of its machine operators. These operators are being trained to use the iPods to track the number of parts produced in record machine cycle times.
Each iPod has been loaded with a mobile version of an application developed by ITAMCO called QUPID (an amalgamation of “quality, price and delivery,” the three customer values the company must meet to be competitive). With this application running, the operator creates an XML data file by using the iPod’s built-in camera to read the bar code on the paper shop router, the bar-code label on the machine tool and the bar code on his or her employee ID tag. The iPod keyboard can be used to enter the quantity of parts completed and the machine runtime. A SEND command transmits the data file simultaneously to a database in the shops quality management system, a database in its ERP system and (via an MTConnect adapter developed by TechSolve) to the ShopViz monitoring system to be incorporated in stats on the dashboard. This data collection initiative is expected to be fully operational by the end of the year, Mr. Neidig says.
Also currently in development are MTConnect applications to monitor power usage by production equipment. The eight MTConnect-enabled machines currently equipped with power monitors are collecting data on amperage, voltage and kilowatt-per-hour usage. The plan is to map these records against production activity to determine which operations are the greatest “energy hogs.” The company will then study how these operations might be rescheduled during periods when electricity is available at lower rates. Results of this pilot program will determine how power monitoring will be implemented throughout ITAMCO’s two facilities.
An MTConnect application is also being planned to monitor energy usage for compressed air systems in the plants. Like most manufacturing facilities, ITAMCO estimates that 10 to 30 percent of energy costs are related to air compressors and compressed air lines. By identifying and addressing sources of waste due to inefficiency and leakage, ITAMCO expects to reduce energy costs in this area by half.
TFT is also preparing for further MTConnect implementations. The company is focusing on three areas: cutting tool management, bar feeders for lathes and high-pressure coolant delivery for turn-mills. Cutting tool management is an important priority for not only TFT, but also the developers of the MTConnect standard. MTConnect was developed to be extensible. Its naming, tagging and defining conventions can be readily applied to additional aspects of the manufacturing process. A working group assigned to extend MTConnect to cutting tools, fixtures, workpieces and other “mobile assets” (as distinguished from machine tools and equipment that normally remain in place) is close to finalizing its extensions to the standards that include cutting tools. Mr. Price is a member of this group.
“Right now, TFT has to define each cutting tool in a different way for different computer programs. Our CAM software requires one format, our tool management system requires another software format and our setup documentation requires still another,” Mr. Price explains. As a result, the computer programs can’t share cutting tool data readily. MTConnect, he believes, is the solution.
TFT is planning to use MTConnect to integrate its tool management system’s database with measurement data from its digital tool presetters. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that current tool length offsets and other data about the cutting tool is always associated with specific tooling items in any application that requires it. Another payoff is preventing a cutting tool that does not meet specifications from getting to a machine spindle.
Likewise, Mr. Price sees MTConnect enabling bar feeders to communicate with the CNC, on lathes with subspindle capability so that barstock is fully utilized. The concept involves the bar feeder detecting data that remaining bar length is longer than a finished part. In that case, a signal from the bar feeder would initiate a machining cycle in which the subspindle acts as the part puller and gripper. As long as the remnant provides enough stock for the collet or chuck jaws in the main spindle to hold it securely during cutoff, that “extra” part is not lost as wasted barstock. Given the high volume of barstock consumed by TFT, the savings from this application are expected to be considerable.
MTConnect-compatible sensors on high-pressure coolant systems would make them more flexible, as well. The concept here is to set a coolant pressure value appropriate to the operation. “We don’t always need coolant delivered at the full 1,000 psi,” Mr. Price explains. As an example, he cites the shop’s Mori Seiki NT turn-mill machine. When the lathe turret is in use, a lower, but adequate, pressure enables the use of simpler setups and lighter-duty coolant hoses and nozzles. It also reduces energy costs. Equipped with MTConnect, the coolant systems could also report their status to the monitoring system and issue messages if critical alarms are alerts are triggered.
These profiles of ITAMCO and TFT would be incomplete if the following observations were not included, because they have much to do with the success the shops have achieved with MTConnect. Here are some of the positive characteristics they have in common:
• A proactive, aggressive stance toward adopting new technology.
• A commitment to participate in the development of new technology. (Both companies actively support the MTConnect Institute as members and working group participants.)
• The ability to imagine and create in-house their own uses and applications for emerging technology. (Having staff dedicated to promoting advanced technology is important.)
• The boldness to consider and develop applications that “get ahead” of the current version of MTConnect in anticipation of benefits to come.
• The openness to share lessons learned and advice with other users and potential users of this communication standard.
Finally, ITAMCO and TFT understand that MTConnect is a means, not an end. Although MTConnect represents a giant step toward plug-and-play compatibility between digital devices used in manufacturing, its true value lies in the productivity gains that its applications deliver. That’s the connection that counts the most.