Most people think of a CNC shop as a collection of machine tools with computers attached. Now we have to start thinking of a CNC shop as a network of computers with machine tools attached.
When it comes to making parts, machine tools with computers attached are highly flexible, very productive, and remarkably capable pieces of equipment—far more so than machines without computers. It is entirely possible that the new model—a network of computers with machine tools attached—represents a similar leap in flexibility, productivity, and capability—when it comes to overall shop activity.
What makes this change in thinking possible is the changing nature of machine tool control units. CNCs are not like what they used to be. In the past, these computerized devices had to be highly customized combination of special-purpose hardware and software. They were not designed to serve as two-way communication devices that could be hooked up readily to a network. Valuable data remained locked inside, with no effective provisions for capturing information about the events taking place as a workpiece was being machined.
Today, more and more CNCs are being built around general-purpose hardware and standardized software, particularly the hardware and software of the personal computer. PCs are being applied to CNC in a variety of manners, and each approach has its merits. One of the most promising developments is that this new generation of CNCs offers options for getting useful information out of the CNC so that it can be shared across a network. A wide range of possibilities emerges.
Managers will be able to see—in real-time—exactly what is happening at any machine tool in the plant, and make changes or adjustments as if they were standing at the control panel, even though they may be miles away at a remote site linked to the network. Monitoring of machine tools will lend itself to being automated, to create further possibilities.
This is not to predict exactly what lies ahead. The two lead articles in this issue both describe shops that have already changed the way they think about CNCs. Read these articles and decide for yourself what the future might hold. Of course, no one can know for certain how or when machine shops will be transformed by this simple change in philosophy. But one thing seems clear: Once the way of thinking has changed, changes to the way of doing will surely follow.