The Great Data Link-Up

Streams of Factory-Floor Information, Aided by Performance Monitoring Tools, Converge With Business-Level Data to Solve Problems, Enhance Decision-Making and Increase Profitability

By Jim Montague

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November 2010Hey, Mr. Machine, how're you feeling today? Mr. COO wants to know. Seriously?

Well, it's about time.

Operators, engineers and managers always want to know how well their machines are running. When machines were simple and shops were small, this was pretty easy to do. However, as machines and their corporations and staffs grew larger and more complex, it became harder to stay aware of how an individual machine's operational health could affect its company's economic health. You know, the old right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. 

Still, many sophisticated devices have been developed and implemented to check on the health of machine and production lines, and as these increasingly software-based tools pushed for more and better operations, they also opened up new levels of proactive and predictive maintenance. Likewise, enterprise resource management (ERP) software and other business-level tools also have grown more sophisticated. However, the persistent problem is that both the production and business sides and their monitoring tools apparently still don't know how to talk to each other.    

New Links to Basic Facts
Despite the historical drawbacks and other new hurdles, some machine builders are finding ways to get machine performance data up to their business-level managers and clients. One of the newest ways to secure and distribute machine information is with the MTConnect standard that puts data from different types of equipment and applications into a standard format. Based on XML and HTTP, MTConnect fosters interoperability between machines, controls, equipment and software by employing a standard vocabulary to gather, publish and distribute machine tool data via Internet Protocol (IP) and Ethernet TCP/IP networking.

"We can network and monitor multiple machines on one server with MTConnect," says Milton Ramirez, product technical specialist for turning centers at Haas Automation Inc. in Oxnard, California. "It even sends text messages and emails to our phones. This allows users to see status, cutting conditions and other performance monitoring information. This means they can check spindle load, idle times and motion time, and monitor overall load on the tool. On the controls side, information from MTConnect can prompt users to do more required maintenance. For example, a prevention page on the interface shows when certain machines need their oil levels checked, filters cleaned, coolant added, chucks greased or seals replaced."

MTConnect's developers say machines use numerous data and communications methods, and so standardizing their language and its structural grammar was crucial for them to talk to and understand each other. Users can learn about MTConnect and even download its source code at MTConnect's website. This software can be used as is, modified for special needs, reverse-engineered or used as a template to create an individual software interface that meets the standard's requirements. Most recently, MTConnect reported that it is partnering with the OPC Foundation to jointly develop MTConnect/OPC-UA, which will be a companion specification set to ensure interoperability and consistency between them.

To better understand the capacity of its plastic medical device packaging machine, Benlan recently employed Plantnode real-time performance management hardware and software from Shoplogix, which secures data from direct digital inputs or via PLCs. Located in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, Benlan needed usage data for its form-fill-seal machine to aid capacity planning and productivity trending, and Plantnode provided it and also email, voice mail or PDA alerts when the machine reached its film replenishment threshold. This reduced many typical 10-15 minute downtime periods, and increased Benlan's production by 25% for this application. 

Self-Made Monitoring
Instead of waiting for others to bring performance monitoring from the factory to the enterprise, Jim Brown, engineering manager at Makino in Mason, Ohio, reports that his firm developed two suites of productivity-improving software, which can connect up to 36 of its mold machining centers, and then store spindle characteristics, alarms histories and other information in a historian database for future analysis. Makino's multi-client Machine Productivity Maximizer (MPmax) will be released in January.

"We found we had a lot of monitoring capabilities that worked well in a machine cell-based control system, such as machine availability and productivity, and that these functions could be communicated via Ethernet, so we decided to build our own solution," Brown says. "This came about because, in the past year, we'd developed our Autonomous Spindle Technology (AST), which can do in-depth monitoring of the spindle, and use embedded software algorithms to automatically adjust parameters on the fly to better maximize the cut, aid material removal, improve finishing and extend tool life (Figure 1). So, we just thought it would be nice to have the same alarming and machine availability functions in our cell system that we now have with AST. That's what led us to develop MPmax."

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