As a manufacturer of machined metal parts for aerospace clients such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Bombardier, Tech Manufacturing often ran its five-axis CNC machines 24 hours a day up to seven days a week. With such heavy CNC demands, the company began looking for ways to increase its production capacity and reduce lead times for its clients’ largest and most urgent orders.
Purchasing additional machines would, of course, be one way to achieve this. But Jerry Halley, chief engineer at Tech Manufacturing, was interested in finding a smarter, more efficient approach that did not require a large capital investment.
“It was clear to me that we needed a much better understanding of how our machines were actually performing for us in real time,” Halley explains. “In addition, if we had live and historical machine performance data available, we would be able to identify any technical or process issues that were detrimental to individual or overall productivity.”
These kinds of goals are increasingly shared by companies all over the world, and they are “driving interest in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT),” says Paul Wacker, product marketing manager at Moxa. A manufacturer of communications equipment for industrial use, Moxa has seen growing demand for products that enable easy network connectivity and interoperability in industrial settings and applications.
The IIoT world is one in which machines and devices of all types share data with each other and are able to adjust behavior based on intelligent analysis of that data. For companies like Tech Manufacturing, the first step toward becoming a part of this world is enabling the collection and analysis of performance data for their existing machines. If the machines are not already connected to a network, obtaining machine performance data requires an investment in both monitoring hardware and software.
Although Halley saw the value of establishing a smarter, more connected machine floor, he had concerns about deploying a server-based IT infrastructure to support a CNC monitoring system. Not only would this be technically challenging, time-consuming and expensive, it would also introduce new ongoing in-house maintenance requirements.
Greg Mercurio of Shop Floor Automations, a system integrator that specializes in CNC monitoring systems, is very familiar with Halley’s concerns. “Most clients think it’s difficult and expensive to get set up with CNC monitoring,” Mercurio says. “However, with today’s cloud-based solutions, you can be set up in less than a day, with almost zero additional IT infrastructure or maintenance effort.”
Cloud-based software such as Scytec DataXchange or Predator Machine Data Collection can easily monitor CNC machines that already have the necessary interfaces to connect to a network and the Internet, according to Mercurio. For legacy machines that do not have a readily available Ethernet port, Shop Floor Automations has found easy-to-deploy solutions to establish cloud connectivity.
“The industrial networking units from Moxa make it easy for us to get our clients’ legacy machines connected to the cloud,” Mercurio says. “For industrial users like Tech Manufacturing, these units are invaluable in extending the capabilities and useful life of their still-functional, but older CNC machines.”
Plus, it doesn’t require “entirely new machines or IT infrastructure to benefit from this trend towards cloud connectivity and the IIoT,” Wacker adds. “Companies can easily collect data from their existing machines and share it over the cloud with relatively simple hardware additions like the ones Moxa and Shop Floor Automations have developed.”
Using Internet-based monitoring software, there was no need for Tech Manufacturing to have an expensive and locally maintained IT infrastructure. Each CNC machine was simply connected to the local area network (LAN), either through its own native interface or through the Moxa hardware deployed by Shop Floor Automations. The information is then relayed to the cloud for immediate analysis and viewing. The monitoring software was able to collect machine performance data, store it in the cloud and, in near real time, present it in an easy-to-understand way for machine shop owners. Key performance metrics were organized on a visual dashboard, which updates automatically and can rotate through multiple sets of data, allowing owners and machine operators to see exactly how productive each cell is down to the machine level.
“This is a light bulb moment for many of our clients,” Mercurio says. “Productivity monitoring can be a vague concept to wrap your head around. But once you see it for yourself with your own machines and with live data, you wonder immediately how you ever operated without that knowledge and awareness.”
The visual monitoring dashboard made it easy for Tech Manufacturing to see immediately where its most glaring productivity issues were. For certain machines, they found setup times to be unnecessarily long, meaning hours of lost productivity every day. With a relatively simple rearrangement of setup sequence and on/off times, Halley was able to achieve immediate and significant productivity gains with those machines. After these and other measures were put into place, Tech Manufacturing was very pleased by the improvement in machine uptimes and overall productivity.
Halley also saw an additional benefit from having comprehensive machine performance data on hand: better service from CNC manufacturers. With many key performance metrics tracked and recorded, service calls could be made with a much higher degree of confidence that a hardware issue was present, and Tech Manufacturing could provide manufacturers with a rich set of data to aid in troubleshooting.
“With our intimate knowledge of how our machines should be performing, we found that manufacturers were more willing to provide support when we requested it because they knew we were not wasting their time” Halley notes.
Tech Manufacturing’s experience exemplifies the kind of immediate practical benefits that can be achieved by collecting more information about more devices, according to Wacker. “You don’t have to wait for new technology to experience the benefits of the IIoT,” he says. “Companies like Shop Floor Automations are showing that you can leverage today’s technology to achieve very real and practical benefits, while also positioning yourself for the IIoT.”