Examining the Infrastructure of a Smarter Manufacturing Plant
Continuous improvement people like to say, “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” Each and every manufacturing plant sits on top of a rich mine of data that it can collect for its own improvement plans. But as recently as 2010, manufacturing industry research states that only about four or five percent of machine tools worldwide were connected to a formal data-collection system. The drawback is that machining centers, transfer lines, and other significant production equipment all work off different control packages. Just like trying to repair your Toyota with Chevy parts, trying to collect data from different makes and models of machines and tools has been likened to observing a permanently ongoing United Nations meeting with no translators.
How new standards are improving data collection and sharing
Now, there is an open, royalty-free standard called MTConnect that a growing number of manufacturing companies are using to streamline improving plant efficiency. Basically, MTConnect is an industrial communications protocol designed specifically for the shop-floor environment. By interfacing with machine tools, toolholders, presetters, or any piece of equipment or data source that can be tagged, software applications can be built on MTConnect for the efficient gathering, reporting, and use of a shop’s data. The idea was conceived in 2006 by the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) with the first version of MTConnect released in 2008. Then, in 2009, the MTConnect Institute, a not-for-profit 501(c)(6) organization, was formed to further the development of the MTConnect standard and publish related materials. The organization includes a Board of Directors, a Technical Advisory Group (MTCTAG), a Technical Steering Committee, and various working groups to further the standard in specific technology areas.
Many of the newest models of machine tools from a growing number of machine tool builders are already MTConnect-compliant in their control packages. This means these machine tools can connect directly to a plant network and their data can be available for analysis. Existing machines can also be made MTConnect compliant through hardware or software connectors that import data into MTConnect and then make it available to a plant network.
Gathering and measuring production data uncovers virtually limitless opportunities for improving efficiencies. How and why some machines are producing better than others can be traced to performance, maintenance, what types of jobs are being produced, and many other factors. Data can be standardized and collected not only from the machine tools themselves, but many other manufacturing plant sources.
“The more we can drive the standardization of production data, the simpler and more efficient we can make a shop’s business,” says Tom Muller, retired senior manager from Kennametal Inc. in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Imagine not only staying on top of the volumes of data a shop produces, but having machine tools “know” what the presetter and the cutters “know” through the efficient exchange of data. Hours of setup, touch-offs, and test cutting could become a thing of the disorganized past. Tribal knowledge or “how Joe does it” can make way for organized and systematized ways of manufacturing parts or training personnel. Shops can literally monitor a customer’s project from art to part, efficiently gathering data from every step. MTConnect is here, and the applications from the machine tool, tooling technology, and software leaders are growing.
More information on the standard, connectivity guides, and news can be found at www.mtconnect.org.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.