Interest in open architecture controls has risen sharply in most segments of manufacturing in the past few years. The following takes a fresh look at who benefits most from open architecture CNCs and what their specific benefits are.
What is Open Architecture? Most of the installed base of CNCs today is built around proprietary architecture. In the past, proprietary designs have allowed control builders to create controls with unique and desirable features and to embed them into proprietary architecture making them more difficult for competitors to copy. This method of protecting market segment, or turf, has worked well for many years when the control technology enjoyed a four- to five-year life cycle. Now that the life cycle is much shorter (six to eight months for processor technology), proprietary control builders are finding, to their dismay, it takes longer to incorporate new technology into a proprietary design than the technology's expected life cycle. To stay competitive in both cost and technology, CNC builders are now forced to find better ways of migrating their controls to new technology other than launching huge development projects each time a technology change is needed. Open architecture provides that capability by eliminating the need for each control builder to develop every hardware and software module that goes into a new CNC.
What Open Architecture means: Open architecture controls are viewed as an important resource for companies that are moving into the new era of Agile Manufacturing. Companies are starting to look at what it takes to succeed in today's manufacturing environment, which has competitive pressures such as customer demands for shorter leadtimes, pressure for higher quality, and a more flexible product offering. These factors are forcing manufacturers to a higher degree of agility in order to satisfy customer-specific needs. With this new manufacturing concept comes increased demands on machines and their controls to be more flexible. PC-based open control architecture will no doubt play a significant role in ushering manufacturing into the age of Agile Manufacturing.
What to look for: Some of the more important features and capabilities that users should consider when deciding which open architecture CNC to purchase are:
- The platform: An open architecture control must be based on a computing platform that is readily available to all control builders, has available development software, supports high speed processing, readily interfaces to a vast array of other devices, supports good graphics, supports a wide range of third party hardware and software, follows accepted industry standards, is reliable, and is low cost driven by high volume use. The PC platform best meets these requirements.
- Third party software capability: Ability to run third party, off-the-shelf software without diminishing the control's ability to make parts. This capability enables distributed processing by allowing commercial software packages like postprocessors, gaging and SPC to be run where they are needed-at the machine.
- Third party hardware capability: Integrate modems, sound cards, Ethernet cards, and others.
- Upward migration path: Provide an upward migration path in both hardware and software as computer technology advances in order to keep the machine updated.
- Connectivity: The open architecture design should allow for a wide range of connectivity to local area networks, other computers, printers, serial devices, the Internet, manufacturing cells and systems.
- Multimedia capability: Should have the capability to display a variety of standard video and still images to support the paperless factory that has been a concept dream of manufacturing for years. The control should support a variety of standard formats such as MPEG, GIF, TIFF, and so on.
- Y2K compliant: Any control purchased today should provide a four digit year code, with the first two digits defining the century to prevent problems when interfacing to LANs and other networks-a necessary requirement for entering the new millennium.
- Try before you buy: Ability to try out software options for 30 days before committing money to buy permanently. This is an innovative marketing approach pioneered by software companies that is now available in some PC-based controls.
Open architecture PC-based controls have emerged as the CNC technology that many control builders and users are placing their money on as they prepare to enter the 21st century.