“Athena, Transform Manufacturing”: Voice-Activated Machining Technology in Multiple Demos

Makino and iT SpeeX demonstrate a new digital assistant for machining. Athena brings voice control to CNC and voice-actuated access to information the machinist needs.


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Can voice recognition replace the pushbutton interface for CNC machine tools? Can the same voice recognition be used to summon the answer to any question a machinist might need to ask? Yes, say Makino and technology startup iT SpeeX. They both demonstrate the new Athena machining digital assistant which iT SpeeX has developed. The startup has the technology running in the Emerging Technology Center for Digital Transformation while Makino (an early proponent) demonstrates the technology in its booth.

The system consists of a headset with shop-noise-canceling features and software running on a shop-hardened notebook PC. The operator uses the headset’s microphone to give commands and ask questions—virtually any command it might be reasonable to issue to the CNC and virtually any question relevant to the machine or job.

Commands might include, “Athena, run part-program number 408,” “Athena, stop the coolant,” or “Athena, tool change to T15.” Stating the device’s name activates it, like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. For any command driving a machine motion, the system checks its understanding of the human operator by restating the command as a question and listening for “Athena, yes.”

Queries might include, “Athena, show the alarm history,” “Athena, show me how to set up for part-program number 408,” or “Athena, how do I change the air filter?” As these utterances show, the development of this technology has involved more than speech recognition. It has also involved algorithms for searching machine manuals and shop documentation accurately to serve up the expected answers to human questions—a development just as important to the promise of the system. Today, we do not fully appreciate how much of the information a machine tool operator might need is located in different places, and therefore how difficult or time consuming it is to access and employ that information. Commanding the machine verbally, combined with obtaining accurate information about the machine, tool or job as needed, essentially just by asking into the air, promises to allow skilled operators to work far more accurately and effectively than is practical for them to do today.

The technology will be field-tested and refined starting with beta users yet this year. According to iT SpeeX, listening to potential users, observing their reaction to the technology and potentially meeting some of these beta adopters are among its primary goals for demonstrating the technology at the show.