There is a definite movement toward unbundling of CNC software. Manufacturing Data Systems, Inc. (MDSI), is one company that has unbundled CNC software.
MDSI develops and markets factory automation software and services. Its primary product is OpenCNC, a software-based CNC that requires no proprietary hardware or motion control cards. The entire product is delivered on a disk.
The company has recognized three important paradigm shifts taking place in the CNC controls market.
First—Controls are moving from a proprietary hardware-based system to an unbundled arrangement where hardware and software are purchased separately from different vendors.
Second—Controls are moving from an "experts-only" supported product to a consumer product that can be supported, upgraded, and maintained by the end user.
Third—Controls are moving from stand-alone islands of technology to network-distributed technologies, enabling machine tools to become an online peripheral connected to a network.
It is interesting to note that these same paradigm shifts have already occurred in the office and engineering departments, and it is only logical that they would migrate to the shop floor.
The trend to bring open architecture and unbundling to CNCs has clearly been driven by a few key end users, not by traditional control builders. There is a strong belief by these end users that truly open control systems bring reduced initial investment, low life-cycle cost, minimized machine downtime and reduced mean-time-to-repair. They are also an effective way of integrating commercial third-party hardware and software. Additionally, open control systems provide a very efficient platform for reconfiguring controls to support new processes and technologies, a concept that agile manufacturing has put great importance on as a necessary resource in the future.
Chuck Hutchins, Chairman and co-founder of MDSI, points out that there are a wide range of CNC control solutions on the market today, and all of them are claiming to be "open." MDSI's definition of "open" is to allow the easy integration of off-the-shelf hardware and software components into a standard environment. This means the end user not only has a choice of hardware and software, but also the choice of who supports, upgrades and maintains the control.
One of the important business strategies that MDSI has successfully pursued is building technology partnerships with software and hardware companies. There has been considerable discussion throughout industry in recent years about the importance that technology partnerships will play in successful agile companies of the future. MDSI has lined up a list of technology partners to enhance the value of solutions it provides to its customers. Since each MDSI customer has a different set of application and integration needs, the Partners Program is designed to ensure the broadest range of technology and integration services to meet those needs. Currently there are five software technology partners and twenty-three hardware technology partners. Recognizable partner names are Black Box Corp.; CimWorks Gage Talker Corporation; Dell Computer; EDS; Elo Touch Systems; Gateway; Kollmorgen Motion Technologies; Microsoft; Micro Touch Monitors; QNX Software Systems, Ltd.; VenturCom, Inc.; and Xycom, Inc.
MDSI's OpenCNC software has been running machines in production for more than five years and spans a broad range of applications and industries. Applications include 3-, 4-, and 5-axis machining centers, 2- and 4-axis turning centers, 7-axis Mill-Turn, 2-axis grinders, and 3-axis gear hobbers. These applications cover 29 manufacturers' machines and are in production at companies including Dana Corp.; Detroit Diesel Corp.; Great Lakes Industry, Inc.; Melling Tool Co.; Nucon Corp.; Precision Industrial Automation, Inc.; Tecumseh Products Co.; Teledyne; and Textron Inc.
Will unbundling of CNC software and hardware flourish? If it does then a lot of traditional control builders will have to restructure their way of thinking and doing business. Clearly the end user is in control of this situation. Those in the controls business will be closely watching this trend.