In the early 1970s as CNCs were beginning to displace hardwired NC units in the marketplace, there were questions asked by potential customers about these new controls that incorporated a minicomputer. Can this CNC run my billing program, or can it track my inventory? Our answer was always "not quite." Twenty-five years later these types of questions are no longer "off-the-wall" but are very appropriate as PC-based controls are rapidly becoming the norm. Today it is even OK to ask "can my CNC connect to the Internet?"
The Internet, generally recognized for its world wide e-mail capability, is really a global information platform whose "open" network architecture, TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), allows dissimilar computers to connect and exchange information. Because the Internet was built mainly by scientists working on government grants, the network grew quietly for years in the relative obscurity of the academic and research worlds, where sharing of information was encouraged. With a number of other breakthroughs like "hypertext" language, URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) and browsers, suddenly you don't have to be a computer scientist to use the Internet. Now for the first time we have a widely available infrastructure based on an open standard that is not controlled by any government or company. This very powerful infrastructure has and will continue to reshape the way we access and disseminate information at work or home, from laptops or desktops and now even from CNCs on the shop floor.
Even though there have been CNCs widely available for the past several years capable of accessing the Internet, I gave little consideration to it providing any benefit to manufacturing-that is until recently when I saw an e-mail from a part programmer of a company that had just purchased a new vertical machining center with a PC-based CNC that had Internet connect capability. The programmer was very excited about the possibilities the Internet brought to the shop floor. For example, he pointed out that giving the machine operator the capability to "surf the web" allowed him to access tool manufacturers sites for up-to-date tooling information. That aroused my curiosity about just how much information was out there in cyberspace on machining, so I got on the Internet and did some checking for myself. Searching on "cut data" turned up a home page for Great Solutions, Inc. featuring "The Machinists Friend," a feed and speed calculator for milling or drilling any kind of material.
Further searching on "machining data" turned up a wide variety of information including tool manufacturers' home pages, feeds and speeds for grinding, Virtual NC software for visualizing and analyzing the functionality of a machine tool, and a wide assortment of companies offering services, tools and software to optimize any machining process. Talk about empowering a machine operator to solve his manufacturing problems, the tools were all there on the Internet.
I was amazed to find such a variety of information so easily available on the Internet that related to solving manufacturing problems. But there was one additional thing I discovered that had not been anticipated. Included with all of the entries for companies and organizations offering services, many free for the downloading, there was a request for information. One person had posted a request on the Internet asking if anyone could provide feed and speed information for tapping glass filled nylon. I don't know if he was a machine operator sending his request from the CNC, but if he was, I can't think of a more convenient way to initiate a request for information, right at the machine when you have just discovered you don't have all the machining information you need to proceed.
There are many high level programs today that are widely endorsed by manufacturing such as: Intelligent Manufacturing Systems, Autonomous Agent Architecture, Holonic Manufacturing Systems, and Agile Manufacturing, all working to reshape U.S. manufacturing for the challenges of the 21st century. The focus of these programs is generally on making U.S. manufacturing more competitive in the international arena with a leading issue of responding to unforecasted change. A key element of managing change is empowerment of workers. It would appear that giving a machine operator access to the Internet is one tool that can significantly contribute to operator empowerment and advancement toward responding to unforecasted change.