Net advances in remote control

It’s eight o’clock at night. You’re home. You’ve had a busy day running the factory. Now you’ve got your feet up in front of the TV and a beer in your hand. Do you really want to switch on your home computer, log on to the factory web site and pull down l

If you were that worried about checking up on the night shift, you would still be at the factory, suggests Geoff Bryant, managing director of machine tool supplier NC Engineering of Watford.

Yet the technology to monitor, even run, a machine shop remotely via the Internet is here now, he says. By marrying conventional CNC machine tool controls to powerful industrial PCs, a number of machine tool makers have begun producing the first ‘Internet ready’ machines that can, just like the home PC, be networked into the World Wide Web.

This opens endless possibilities. Simply by linking to a company’s intranet network, component design data can be downloaded direct from the design office to machine tools. Component machining programs (part programs) can be created at the machine control or in the design office and networked to other machines. Similarly, files of scheduling data and data on tooling and materials can be sent and stored with part programs.

The control screen can simulate the cutting operation and display spindle power consumption at each stage of the cutting cycle. By using the control’s extensive built-in database of cutting tool speeds and feeds, the operator or programmer can determine if there are faster ways to cut metal.

Managers can use their office PCs to call up reports on machine running time, idle time, down time, even power consumption, just as if they were standing in front of the machine tool’s control screen. Work can be rescheduled and part programs changed remotely.

Going further, by connecting the machines to the World Wide Web, the latest data on cutting tools and cutting speeds can be downloaded from the manufacturer’s web site to keep the control’s database up to date.

Machine faults can easily and quickly be diagnosed remotely over the Web by the manufacturer’s service department staff. And e-mail can be used to order spares or send repair advice and diagrams to the local service engineer.

New part programs created in the factory can be e-mailed to the machine tool maker for tweaking and advice. And specialised programming routines, known as canned cycles, for one-off jobs can be rented and downloaded from the Web. Even additional machine functions, such as an extra spindle axis, can be hired over the Internet.

‘Machine tool makers are having to respond to a fast food culture,’ says Bryant. ‘Everyone wants everything now. Our customers are in an instant world. They’ve got a new job, they want the kit now.’

Machine tool users are attracted by the concept of what these new control systems can offer, says Bryant. ‘Most don’t know how they are going to use the technology. But they feel it will be useful soon.’

Although he does not feel there will be much demand for remotely monitoring your factory from home, he thinks web cameras might be useful for showing potential customers around a machine shop without them having to set foot inside it.

NC Engineering, which supplies Japanese-made Citizen lathes, has been offering Citizen’s Internet-ready L20 control system for over a year.

Based on Mitsubishi PC/CNC hardware it enables machines to connect to CitizenNet, a series of web pages offering help and advice for Citizen machine users. ‘You can dial in to it to get a fix for a problem,’ says Bryant.

Citizen has taken the concept further to enable customers to rent or buy machine options such as additional axes, canned cycles, macros, and larger memories for big jobs. The hardware for these options is already present in the machine, says Bryant.

The technology of today’s machine tool spindles, for example, means that the capability for an additional axis of movement can be built in: all it needs is some additional software to activate it. ‘The customer effectively buys a licence to use it and then activates the option over the Web.’

Ultimately, says Bryant, the small machine shop manager would buy a basic machine then use the Web to rent additional functions as needed.

Japanese machine tool maker Yamazaki Mazak has taken the concept of the fusion between PC and CNC control to its ultimate extent. It is building the world’s first ‘cyber factory’ to produce machine tools virtually under remote control. The factory, based at its Oguchi site, near Nagoya, makes extensive use of the company’s new Internet-ready Mazatrol Fusion 640 control, complete with Web cameras to keep a remote eye on the shopfloor.

Networking the cyber-factory

By using Fusion 640 controls to network all 33 machine tools in the cyber-factory, Yamazaki hopes to cut overall cycle times at Oguchi by 20%. Most of the benefit will come from the controls’ ability to handle more data and accept changes to work schedules. The ability to marry data on fixturing and tooling availability with part programs will also cut lead times.

The control, launched publicly last week at the Chicago international machine tool show, is also based on Mitsubishi Electric’s hardware. It enables the operator to simulate a part program cutting cycle and to plot the power available at the spindle with cutting tool speed.

This lets the operator see whether the cutting tools specified are making maximum use of the power available. If they are not, the operator can search the control’s database for alternative tooling from a range of manufacturers. For a fee, this database can be regularly updated over the Web. And there is on-line production engineering support to help users iron out problems with part programs.

All data generated by the control can be called up remotely over the factory network from another site or even from home. Maintenance and diagnostics have been made easier. The operator is shown a picture on the control screen of where a fault has occurred and where the re-set switch is.

If the fault cannot be fixed, then Yamazaki’s service engineers can use the Internet to dial into the machine’s control and diagnose the fault by remote control. The availability of spares can be checked over the Web and pictures and repair advice downloaded to the local service engineer. An e-mail can then be sent to the machine saying when the engineer will arrive.

Dialling directly into the machine via the Internet gives service engineers a clearer idea of what the problem is. It cuts out verbal misunderstandings, says Les Pratt, a spokesman for Yamazaki’s Worcester plant. ‘In the past, we would often have to make a second call to customers to find out exactly what the problem was.’

Pratt believes that the growing scarcity of programming and production engineering skills is putting increasing demand on the machine tool manufacturer to supply on-line engineering support via the Web. There is also a growing trend among volume manufacturers to install turnkey systems.

‘They don’t want to get involved in programming,’ says Pratt. ‘They just want to push a button and make parts.’ Also, as machines become more complex and businesses more competitive, machine shops are relying more and more on the machine tool manufacturer for maintenance and service.

Other control manufacturers such as Heidenhain and GE Fanuc also have the technology to interrogate machines remotely and link them via the Internet. But according to both companies, the cyber factory is still some years away.

Malcolm Smith, managing director of Heidenhain, says there is no limit to the way machines can be linked into the Web and external databases. What is holding it back is the cost of installing the networking infrastructure in the factory. ‘Most customers’ priorities lie elsewhere at the moment and the smaller firms haven’t the resources to do it,’ he says. However, he does see a growing demand for remote diagnostics and the downloading of programs from the Internet.

That said, a small French company of just 11 engineers claims to be able to provide almost every machine shop with easy access to remote diagnostics via the Web. Yellow Connection of Mulhouse (www.yellow.net) has developed the Submarine remote diagnostics package to provide a gateway to a number of machine tool control manufacturers’ own diagnostics sites.