Because it's hard to see the forest for the trees, sometimes an oppressive present can obscure a brighter future. This is because most machine builders focus so intently on current projects that they don't take time to think more than 10 months (or 10 minutes) into the future—so forget about looking out 10 years or more.
The future is scary—especially these days—but fear only persists until you realize that the same abilities and traditional values that helped you succeed in the past can help you do the same in the future. Imagination, perseverance and cooperation always have been crucial, and they're even more rare and useful now.New Needs = New Capabilities
One force that drives machine builders into the future more than any other is the always growing and changing requirements of their customers—and their ongoing need to provide newer and more distinctive products for retailers and mainstream consumers.
"In the next 10 years, we're going to see machine controls going to more on-the-fly adaptability and completely automated reconfiguration," says Robert Hattin, former president of Edson Packaging Machinery Ltd. in Hamilton, Ontario. "Individual machines are getting smaller, more modular and dropping in price, but the lines they're on are mostly still on one frame that's meant to do one job and produce one thing. That's going to change."
Hattin says this is helped by miniaturized servos that run at one power level for primary motion, and run at another level for a less-frequent but heavier task. "We'll also see more integrated motion using pneumatic and hydraulic cylinders with help from intelligent servo amplifiers that use built-in encoders and position software."
To assist these mechanical improvements, Hattin says, next-generation machines will have many more wireless sensors and supporting communications that can securely send and receive real-time wireless signals from many handheld devices, including smart phones—not to mention making life simpler and easier for panel builders.
Just as machine sizes and prices are dropping, robots will become less costly, if not commodity items, and be called on to do almost all manual manufacturing functions in the coming decade, Hattin speculates. "Inexpensive robotics might even help drive some manufacturing back to North America in the future," he adds. "A six-axis SCARA robot now costs about $20,000, but prices are falling, and so it will probably cost $3,000 by 2020. As automation gets smaller, we'll see machines gain a lot more flexibility and range of motion, as well as an evolution to the same level of machine quality among regions. And all these new capabilities are going to come together in a completely integrated control system."
Fortunately, this unification will be necessary and come just in time to help users cope with higher energy and raw materials costs. "There's going to be even more of an energy crunch in 10 years. Costs will be through the roof by 2020," Hattin adds. "What we also need is a change in people's mindsets about machine functions. For example, if we can benchmark a machine's power consumption on a dynamic basis, then we'll really be able to make some better decisions."Out on the Edge
Of course, there's nothing new under the sun—until there is. In mechanical engineering, it's sometimes said that no new basic physical movements have been invented in the past 150 years. The only new operations are just refinements of existing ones. However, every tool or solution had to be new once, and so some breakthroughs do come along once in a while—and they are the ones that illuminate the future.
For example, what if frictional heat were no longer a problem in metal milling? That would improve many future applications. Well, MAG Industrial Automation Systems in Erlanger, Kentucky, recently developed and demonstrated a new cryogenically cooled machining method, which uses a through-spindle, through-tool, multi-patent-pending system that cools its cutting edge far more efficiently, enabling much higher cutting speeds, increased metal removal and/or longer tool life. The liquid-nitrogen (-321 °F) cooling system also can combine with minimum-quantity lubrication (MQL) to reduce tool friction and adhesion, enabling even higher metal removal rates or longer tool life. Ideal applications involve aggressive metal removal in the hardest materials, such as titanium, nickel-based alloys, and nodular or compacted graphite iron (CGI) (Figure 1).