I certainly believe that MTConnect, the standardized communication protocol (discussed in the cover story of the December 2009 issue of MODERN MACHINE SHOP) is very much "for real." MTConnect has proven to be an effective means to access and share essential information about manufacturing processes.
I must admit, however, that when I first heard John B. Byrd III’s statement that this standard would have a greater impact on manufacturing in the next century than numerical control had in the last century, my instant reaction was: "Wow. Really?" Not that I doubted John’s credibility or sincerity, but I simply was astonished by the boldness of this prediction.
I think he’s right. Numerical control (NC) has undoubtedly had a profound effect on machining. NC fundamentally changed how workpieces are produced on machine tools. Once impossible operations and processes are now commonplace. Machine configurations and capabilities that were barely imaginable before NC are still being developed. Yet, in many ways, NC did not change manufacturing. Most machine tools have remained stand-alone, self-contained pieces of equipment, albeit extremely productive and efficient ones. NC automated the motion of cutting tools, and the computerized machine controller has automated tool changes, pallet changes and other machine functions. However, the overall production process in most shops and plants still follows patterns set decades before NC appeared. One could make the case that lean manufacturing has done more than any machine control technology to reshape the plant floor in the last few years.
This is not to diminish the impact of NC. The point is that MTConnect is clearly emerging as a key enabler as a shop-wide/factory-wide management capability. It is a key enabler in two senses: First, it enables us to achieve levels of automation and integration rarely achieved because of the expense and difficulty currently involved in these modes. Likewise, MTConnect is key in the sense that it unlocks the otherwise access-resistant data generated by machine tools and other manufacturing equipment. All sorts of monitoring, coordinating, integrating, streamlining and automating are now within reach. As these possibilities are realized, manufacturing will indeed undergo a deep transformation. The breadth and depth of this influence will be extensive.
Of course, making comparisons such as MTConnect to NC will always have to be couched in largely figurative language. Both mark important shifts in technology, but there is no way to measure them in objective terms.
No matter. I’m convinced that at this moment, it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact MTConnect will have on manufacturing in the next several years. Manufacturing will move much more readily toward the virtually seamless enterprise we’ve long envisioned and for which we’ve striven. In time, we may even lose sight of the role this standard plays because it will be the invisible thread that helped tie it all together.