Walk into Mori Seiki's Digital Technology Laboratory (DTL) in Sacramento, California, and you might think you've instead wandered into a West Coast extension of the United Nations. The facility is dedicated to software development and engineering for the machine tool builder worldwide, and the makeup of the staff certainly speaks to diverse needs of a global market. With 27 people (including eight Ph.D.s) from different countries, DTL is designed to develop innovative software solutions that bridge cultural and geographic boundaries.
The facility has two major areas of responsibility. For one, the staff does a wide range of computer-aided engineering analysis on Mori Seiki's own machine designs. That typically involves taking a conceptual design developed in Japan and running a cadre of simulations to determine static and dynamic mechanical attributes of the machine as well as to assess thermal, vibration and other performance characteristics. Much like how automobiles are developed today, performing these engineering tasks with computer simulations allows optimized machine designs to be developed as much as 75 percent faster and with little reliance on physical prototypes. In some cases, engineers are reducing the machine's mass by 20 percent while simultaneously doubling the strength and halving the effect vibration has on surface finish.
Machine tool users don't really see that part of the development process, of course, but the other part of DTL's work is growing increasingly visible across Mori Seiki's product offering. That is, much of the human-machine interface software for Mori's machines, as well as sophisticated software applications for part programming, scheduling, quality management and shopfloor-to-office networking, are now developed in California.
"Even with capacity to spare, manufacturers are still struggling to eliminate waste from their operations," comments DTL general manager, Jiancheng Liu. "Another method to make progress in this area is by applying software automation for reducing the time to make the first part and improving process intelligence." Dr. Liu sees DTL's niche in the already busy machine tool software market along these lines.
One of the best examples of this capability is the VEGA Milling Edition automatic programming package for machining centers that Mori introduced at IMTS in Chicago. VEGA combines automatic feature recognition capability with a machining process database to automate part programming for prismatic parts. Once a solid model of the workpiece is imported, VEGA automatically analyzes the geometry, finding standard features such as holes, slots, pockets and so on. VEGA also determines cutting planes, and associates appropriate machining processes with each feature. A fully populated "feature tree" is then output, representing all the operations needed to machine the part. Operations can be reordered or combined simply by dropping and dragging the associated features. Finally, once VEGA has created the "machining order," it sets feeds and speeds (based on the selected tools and its machining process database), organizes tooling, and can run a visual verification routine if desired.
While Mori Seiki's CAM software is based on the Parasolid kernel for geometry, all the other aspects of the application are written in-house. According to Dr. Liu, writing their own code allows Mori to tightly structure and integrate product functionality while still keeping costs down. It also frees the user from dealing with the vagaries of post processors, as tool path code is sent directly to the machine tool without the need for further reformatting or translation.
Much of the same philosophy is behind other applications that have been and continue to be developed at DTL. Included in the fold is the CAPS-LPS cell control application for linear pallet pools. CAPS-LPS features "job based scheduling," which allows the user to request multiple copies of a single part number or an assembly. In the latter case, the system schedules workpieces through the machines based on parts that are associated with the assembly. Moreover, the system takes tooling requirements into account, right down to the individual tool life consumed in each operation, so that material and tooling are appropriately matched for the entire production cycle.
What Mori Seiki is really up to with all this software development and integration is to provide customers with an entire suite of management tools that allow them to get the most out of their production equipment. As Mr. Liu puts it, "You can no longer separate the software from the machine. It is all part of the same thing." Not so long ago, that would have meant software that directly controls the machine tool. Today, it includes software that captures and distributes knowledge on how to get the most out of the entire production and support system.
Even more advanced applications are in the works at DTL, which the company believes will make its customers more productive overall with Mori Seiki equipment. If so, the future of the machine tool business may well have as much to do with the software around the machine as with the hardware itself.