Would you buy a computer that could only “talk” with just a couple of other devices, like a printer and one other desktop? Neither would most people. They’d make sure their new unit has all the ports and protocols that will get them to the whole outside world.
The same should hold true for machine tools and other factory-floor devices, argue the people behind MTConnect, the standard for interconnection of manufacturing equipment. At the Emerging Technology Center—just off the main concourse in the North Building—representatives from the MTConnect Institute can demonstrate why you should make sure any computer-capable equipment you’re shopping for will also support the interoperability protocol, regardless of what communications system is already built in.
It has to do with managing the data on your shop floor. By monitoring inputs like machine availability and performance you can get a 20-percent improvement in overall efficiency, some analysts say. Enabling those connections is why the protocol was launched in the first place. Now the latest edition of the standard, Version 1.2, also handles data about mobile assets like non-vendor-specific cutting tools: How long has this cutter been in use? When was it reconditioned? Future versions—the protocol purposely was designed to be extensible—will further handle information on individual workpieces.
At its heart, MTConnect is just a vehicle for information, a streamlined way of connecting production equipment with the kind of software that can help manage it. Once installed, it fades into the background, kind of like Bluetooth, says Dave Edstrom, president of the MTConnect Institute. Since it’s an open standard, it doesn’t limit choices for future expansion.
Introduced at IMTS 2008, MTConnect is now used in nearly 1,000 installations, with many of those being pilot projects for proof-of-concept. According to Edstrom, some users consider it a competitive edge and are leery of discussing their experiences; others have become apostles, with their stories appearing in metalworking magazines and on the institute’s website, mtconnect.org.
The institute itself has about 100 corporate members, and the majority of those also serve on the technical advisory group that drives evolution of the standard. The biggest names in machine tools, numerical controllers and factory-level software producers are aboard, but so are makers of conveyors, tool presetters and inspection equipment. Many, of course, are exhibitors here in Chicago.
Which brings us to the demonstrations here at IMTS. Dozens of firms ranging from Okuma to Optical Gaging to AgieCharmilles are linking machine operations in their booths to monitors in the central Emerging Technology Center. Additionally, companies like Mazak and Bosch are showing within their own exhibit how they integrate data from clusters of machines in order to understand hidden costs or discover untapped capacity. Stop by the ETC to see which other firms have joined the MTConnect bandwagon. While you’re there, ask a staffer from partner organizations like the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology or TechSolve for details on how to implement intercommunications on your own factory floor.
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