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Open House Highlights Additive, IIOT

With help from key partners, machine tool supplier Okuma America Corporation aims to make headway in the emerging technologies of additive manufacturing and the Internet of Things. The aerospace industry is a particular focus.

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Every December, Okuma America Corporation invites visitors to see its latest offerings first-hand at its annual “Technology Showcase” in Charlotte, North Carolina, and 2015 was no exception. However, this year’s open house was markedly different from past iterations.

Consider the image above. I didn’t photograph this large aerospace bearing at the “Technology Showcase,” or even at the company’s main headquarters/Partners in THINC facility where that December 9-10 event was hosted. I took the pic at the company’s Aerospace Center of Excellence, a nearby, 10,000-square-foot facility opened last December for aerospace manufacturers to perform test cuts and prove out processes on $6.5 million worth of CNC machinery. This new facility was home to a second, overlapping event December 8-9: “Manufacturing Excellence—Applying Emerging Technologies to Aerospace Manufacturing,” presented jointly by Okuma and cutting tool manufacturer Sandvik Coromant.

The photo also demonstrates that these “emerging technologies” involve more than just the milling, turning, multi-process and grinding machines that are Okuma’s specialty. The bosses on the large bearing part were formed via a freeform laser deposition process developed by partner RPM Innovations. That company, Okuma and Fastems are working on a cellular concept designed to fully leverage the capabilities of both subtractive and additive technologies.

Although such a cell wasn’t actually on the floor, the 9 machines that have a permanent home in the tech center served as a real-life demonstration of what can be gained from linking individual CNCs to a company-wide network, another emerging technology and another key focus of Okuma’s work with various partners. Here’s a bit about both developments:

Hybrids Aren’t the only Option for Combining Additive, Subtractive Processes 

For parts like that bearing, linking dedicated additive and subtractive machines with a flexible manufacturing system (FMS) can be more effective than integrating both technologies into the same machine platform, says Robert Mudge, one of RPM’s founders. Examples of specific advantages include not tying up machining spindles; the ability to reuse leftover powdered metal; the ability to more easily incorporate secondary processes like heat treating; and the ability to leverage a more controlled environment for additive processes. (Keep an eye on this blog, as well as future issues of MMS and sister publication Additive Manufacturing, for more detail on this concept.)

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RPM’s website offers plenty of information on its process, which injects powdered metal directly into the melt pool as the laser follows the contours of the workpiece. As demonstrated by this component, one advantage is the ability to produce relatively large parts.  

IIoT Barriers are Breaking Down  

All the hype and fanfare these days about the "Internet of Things (IOT)” isn’t unwarranted. After all, it’s already happening throughout the economy. That’s not to say that manufacturing doesn’t present its own, unique hurdles when it comes to networking machines and leveraging data for better decision-making. In one presentation, Jeff Estes, director at Okuma, cited a recent Smart Industry survey that found the majority of manufacturers have either no strategy or only an informal strategy for IIoT, and only 2.7 percent of plans that are in place extend beyond five years. Nonetheless, the intense focus on these problems from suppliers of all stripes—software developers, machine builders, and, of particular note in recent news, cutting tool manufacturers—will likely continue to break down barriers impeding what some have called the fourth Industrial Revolution.

For instance, one of the chief hurdles identified by the aforementioned survey is security. This was also the subject of a brief conversation I had with Michael Rogers, director of automation & OEM relations at Predator Software. Predator, which supplied the the Manufacturing Data Collection (MDC) system shown below, aims to provide a “conduit between machine tool builders, the (user’s) shop floor, and the (user’s) IT department,” he says.

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Predator Software’s MDC system provides real-time data on the status of all the tech center’s machines (green denotes a machine in cycle, yellow denotes an in-process setup, and red denotes a down machine). Overall, the system offers 5,000+ reports, charts and dashboards to track jobs, parts, operations, work centers, cost centers, people, OEE, scrap, downtime and 50 other metrics.  

More specifically, the system is designed to enable securely linking and drawing data from machines—and integrating that data into shop management systems—on an internal network without lumping those CNCs in with the rest of a company’s computer systems, he explains. This alleviates the concerns of programmers and machinists, who understand that Windows updates, new antivirus software and so forth could potentially disrupt operations on CNCs employing front-end operating systems that might date back a half decade or more. Isolating CNCs also alleviates concerns of IT professionals, who are tasked with ensuring all systems are updated and protected against outside intrusion. 

IIoT can Start Small 

I came away from the concurring open house event at Okuma’s headquarters facility with a very similar message about IIoT: Taking the first steps toward leveraging production data is becoming easier than ever before, even if the ideal of a fully interconnected plant seems out of reach in the short term. Consider the latest iteration of the company’s open-architecture CNC, the OSP Suite, a major highlight of the open house.

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The latest version of Okuma’s open-architecture control is said to offer a more customizable user experience.

OSP Suite is essentially an extension of a philosophy that Okuma has been pursuing for some time. That is, to make as much functionality accessible directly through the CNC as possible. Much of that functionality—maintenance alerts, cycle time monitors, optional energy use tracking (including both machines and peripherals like chip conveyors), and more—involves using machining data to inform decision-making, which is the whole point of IIoT.

Indeed, even older OSP controls facilitate this goal, on whatever scale the user desires. After all, there’s no need to connect the CNC to a Windows-based PC to facilitate integration with a broader network or for any other purpose. The OSP CNC literally is a PC, complete with standard Ethernet capabilities. As such, it’s ready for networking right out of the box. And thanks to the CNC’s open architecture application programming interface (API), partners, distributors and even users can develop customized applications for various functionality. Those applications—including one for MTConnect, an open, royalty-free communications standard that’s increasingly viewed as an answer to linking disparate equipment—can be downloaded, mostly for free, by any user through Okuma’s App store.

Given that the app store has been around since IMTS 2014, some of Okuma’s customers have no doubt already been taking advantage of IIoT, even if only on the level of an individual machine. Even without an OSP control, functionality like machine status monitoring and e-mail alerts are anything but out of reach these days. Whatever form IIoT might end up taking in your own manufacturing operation, it can’t be ignored, and there’s nothing wrong with starting small.

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