Mechatronics Inside Equals Innovation Outside

Okuma's Melding of Mechanical and Electronics Fosters Collaboration and Breakthroughs in Real-Time, Active Optimization — and Apps, Too

By Jim Montague

Many machine builders talk about mechatronics, but only a few truly weave mechanical and electronics together to work harmoniously in their machines, organizations, and even their people. One of these rare organizations is Okuma in Nagoya, Japan, and its U.S. subsidiary, Okuma America Corp., in Charlotte, N.C.

"You can't optimize an electro-mechanical system without engineering both the electrical control and mechanical parts of the system," says Jim Kosmala, Okuma America's vice president of engineering and technology. "Everything we do is born from classical mechatronics. That's why our logo has twisting bars to signify the melding of the two electrical and mechanical fields."

SEE ALSO: Cooperate Sooner and Better With Mechatronics

Okuma's devotion to mechatronics' varied and integrated disciplines is perhaps more understandable because it was founded in 1898 by Eiichi Okuma, who first made noodle machines, added cigarette-rolling equipment, and then developed the first versions of the CNC lathes and other machines it has built for more than 100 years. Now one of the world's leading CNC machine tool companies, Okuma reports it's the only single-source provider of CNC lathes, vertical and horizontal machining centers, multitasking machines, supporting devices, drives, motors, encoders, spindles, controls and related components. The company manufactures all these machines and components itself, and delivers them via what it says is the largest distributor network in the Americas that's independently owned.

"We have the broadest one-stop shop for lathes, mills, grinders, double-column, five-axis and other machining centers, which are offered in 450 to 500 different configurations," Kosmala says. "To apply all of our technologies as intelligently as possible and help our customers maintain optimum usage and best practices, we're completely connected with all our colleagues in Japan. In fact, one of my favorite things is that we usually have about 30 advisors from Japan on site to perform technical translating, run operational models, and provide consulting services."

Cooperate to Innovate
This close collaboration was especially useful when Okuma reorganized about 12 years ago, and moved its North American machine-building operations back to Japan. Though the Charlotte facility had built about 8,000 lathes since it opened in 1987, analysis indicated that Okuma's headquarters had better economies of scale. Still, Okuma America retained many crucial functions, such as implementing programming and software, repairing spindles and electronic boards, integrating systems and providing other services for customers. "We handle everything related to the brains and central nervous systems of our machines," Kosmala adds.

Okuma reports it was the first CNC machine builder to develop and offer truly open-architecture CNC control. The Intelligent Numerical Control-Okuma Sampling Path (THINC-OSP) CNC control is PC-based, and ensures Okuma's machines and programs perform at optimum speed, reliability and accuracy. The firm also started Partners in THINC, a network of more than 40 companies specializing in tooling workholding, robotics, CAM, probing and metrology, who gather to solve problems and explore new productivity ideas for manufacturers.

Okuma also uses and works with other builders to develop MTConnect, an open, royalty-free, factory-floor communication standard and protocol, for enabling communication and interoperability between devices and software applications. It was initially used for machine monitoring, status reporting and other details, but is growing to include alerts and alarms, temperature, speed and other information. 

More recently, Okuma's cooperative spirit helped it look beyond traditional solutions, and develop several technical breakthroughs to aid the performance of its machines. Most involve gathering real-time data, and using it to improve machine performance immediately.

For example, the company has pursued its Thermal Friendly concept for decades, which seeks to maintain its machines' precise running tolerances over an increasing range of ambient and operating temperatures. On early lathes, this meant achieving mechanical design symmetry. However, while every CNC machine builder has some thermal compensation capabilities, most are passive, pre-programmed devices. To address specific thermal issues while they're happening, Okuma spent the past three to five years developing and implementing its Thermal Active Stabilizers, which provide real-time position compensation during cutting to address thermal issues. "Thermal Active Stabilizers are like noise-canceling headphones, in that they actively change offsets to neutralize thermal growth based on temperature sensors, the way noise-cancelling headphones actively change an out-of-phase neutralizing sound wave based on a microphone feedback," Kosmala explains.

"We made our API layer free and publicly available, so anyone can write apps for it. Customers write their own apps, and run them for optimizing production operations, or displaying production schedules in Excel or whatever other program they use."

Similarly, two years ago, Okuma released Machining Navi, which uses sensors, microphones and accelerometers to listen and feel for chatter on its machines, and then actively adjust spindle speed or other parameters to improve performance. Okuma plans to launch Servo Navi in September 2013. "Servo Navi will collect data and respond during cutting, automatically determine how the weight and inertia of a workpiece is affecting the cutting process, and automatically adjust acceleration and deceleration based on that inertia," Kosmala explains. "This enables Okuma to make faster short moves, and reduce cutting time by up to 20%." 

Given Okuma's longstanding focus on mechatronics and its more recent work with active control, it was natural that the company would try to bring them together. In fact, Okuma already has spent several years developing an Intelligent Mechatronics program, which ties real-time data gathering and control to its existing application programming interface (API) to enable active evaluation and control in other areas.           
PC-Based Stability and Apps
Of course, many of Okuma's innovative methods for accomplishing active mechatronics are based on its open-control platform, which adopted a PC-based control strategy about 10 years ago. "We use an Intel i7 dual-core processor for true, PC-based control," Kosmala says. "This is a very industrially stable platform. Intel and Microsoft are very good at what they do. And, we enjoy some economies of scale thanks to the consumer market. Developing an internal staff and building a proprietary control platform might have been appropriate 20 years ago, but nowadays a proprietary, closed architecture can leave you at a disadvantage. The world revolves around apps now. Apps on your phone and tablet are commonplace. Apps on Okuma machine tools have become the 'easy-button', the easy way to get things done. The majority of Okuma Apps are written in Visual Basic, mainly because it's easy to learn and program. Some also use C# or .net. The point is, anyone can write them."

Okuma's PC-based control strategy inevitably led it to some Internet involvement, where its traditional mechatronic ethos and outgoing, collaborative habits have inspired it to develop a variety of apps, and allow their users to do it, too. They're just like the mainstream software modules available for Apple, Android and Google-based devices, but Okuma's apps are tailored for its machines and their users.

"We made our API layer free and publicly available, so anyone can write apps for it," Kosmala says. "Customers can write their own apps, and run them for optimizing production operations, displaying their production schedule in Excel or whatever other program they use. Anything that runs on a PC runs on our controller. Okuma has written many apps, but like Android and Apple, far more apps have been written by individual, independent engineers and machine users. The real strength of Okuma's Open-API is not just using the popular apps that have over 1,000 production installations, but it's the thousands of unique apps customized to do just exactly what users want for their specific operations."