Shopfloor Advancements Lead to Legacy Machine Tool Connectivity 

By Thomas R. Cutler

Many machine tools used in metalworking are poorly set up for the data collection and communications needed to measure the Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) information needed for profitable company decision-making. There are historical reasons for these short-comings, along with industry and research solutions emerging to address them.
Why many Metalworking Plants Have Obsolete Technology
In the 1980s, CNC machines with RS232 serial ports for communications with computers emerged. Programs were stored on a PC, backed up or called up remotely, and were much easier to manage than punched paper tape. The approach was so successful that many of these controls and machines remain in use today.
The main weakness of RS232 serial port technology is the length of the cables required in a shop floor environment. Longer cables require slower data transfer (< 2400 Baud) rates, and increase the risk of data transmission errors. The harsh environmental conditions of some moldmaking shops can cause PC failures that interrupt day-to-day operations.
In today’s competitive metalworking manufacturing environment, these failures are no longer acceptable.  Migrating to the Ethernet for networking connectivity is the solution.
Conversion to a company-wide Ethernet based machine tool communication network, (while still loading and accessing a machine through a local, legacy serial port is cost-effective) has a short return-on-investment (ROI) period; it also provides the easiest migration path to reliable shop floor information and increased operational efficiency.
According to John Rattray, a senior executive with Memex Automation, “Manufacturers with an eye on the bottom-line should look at this technological leap to maximize the utility of their most valuable assets, their shop floor machines. The added-value provided by Ethernet technology ensures a competitive edge and a successful business in today’s global environment.”
Graham Young recently discussed the advantages of migrating from serial to Ethernet communications on the shop floor, noting, “There is a technological shift on the shop floor that is allowing machines to communicate directly with corporate information systems, generating big benefits for moldmaking companies by increasing their operational efficiency. Applications are available that provide real-time machine monitoring, acquisition of Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) metrics, dynamic computer-aided machining, automatic synchronization of part programs, DNC, work order scheduling, and central control of machine operations.”
On the research front, earlier this year, during a keynote address at the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters conference held in Ottawa, Canadian Minister of Industry, Tony Clement announced funding for several groundbreaking, large-scale, multidisciplinary research projects. Included was the NSERC Canadian Network for Research and Innovation in Machining Technology (CANRIMT), led by Dr. Yusuf Altintas of The University of British Columbia. The five-year, $5 million network involves university researchers from across Canada working in modeling, analysis, monitoring and control of machining processes and manufacturing automation. Rattray’s firm is also participating through collaboration with Dr. Allan Spence at McMaster University, who noted “This is a special opportunity to advance virtual machining technology through integration of laser scanning and Computer Aided Design (CAD) algorithms with online monitoring, measurement, and control. This funding will allow us to more precisely predict and control mold machining operations – even for cases where actual geometry departs from CAD actuals. To accelerate industrial adoption, we will be using the Memex Ax9150 Universal Machine Interface with our CNC machine tools”
How Metalworking Enterprises Can Technologically Advance
Traditionally, the continuous process sector has provided leadership in adopting and using efficiency metrics. The simple observation is that continuous processes deploy very expensive ($20K to >$1M) process control MES systems at initial deployment. These systems directly capture the relevant information needed to report appropriate metrics.
In contrast, because discrete part production (e.g. CNC) errors are limited in scope, moldmakers can rarely justify the expensive MES systems. New machine interface hardware has reduced this expense to $4,000 per machine, making OEE metric collection affordable. The ROI is very rapid, with reports of twenty percent or greater productivity improvements.
"Operator-less" input
Because the OEE system can automatically accept signals directly from the machine tool control, unless there is a fault or other downtime event, there is no longer a need for the operator to provide input for each cycle. This direct and real-time capability avoids ERP data entry issues with operator errors, failure to record, and lost hand written reports. The OEE system saves significant labor time - often justifying the investment even before the benefits of increased efficiency, lower product costs, and competitive advantages are factored into a cost benefit analysis. Rattray insists this factor is most critical to metalworking enterprises because, “It removes the human element and there is accurate data with built-in monitoring tools and alerts. If you can measure it, then you can manage it.”
Metalworkers Speak of OEE Benefits
From a metalworking perspective, OEE provides valuable new benefits. Here are some recent comments received from both management and shop floor users:
§ “We now have a tool to communicate to the people on the shop floor that our performance can improve.”
§ "The OEE data provided improves human as well as machine-to-machine communications."
§ "We believe we can use data to motivate employees with a shared understanding of how we can be more productive, and that’s what it’s all about.”
§ "Our biggest differentiator is productivity and OEE helps us identify areas to improve our efficiency."
§ "Machines are islands of unconnected information – like having a group of office PCs, each with different software – now we can network machines together, just like networking an office."
§ “We had passive OEE with manual clip boards and now we have active OEE, visible in the plant.”
§ "The key to better productivity is not just to track performance, but to act on problems in real-time.”
§ "Machine connectivity unites the islands of machine automation, establishing a fully-connected, enterprise-wide manufacturing nervous system that gives real-time visibility of production and the ability to adapt and control each machine."
§ “Customers can see and believe in what we’re doing to improve on time delivery because we have traceability of machine operations through OEE."
The Technology Future is Bright
Metalworking has entered the 21st century. Global technology initiatives from technology suppliers, coupled with university research such as the NSERC CANRIMT initiative, recognize that the machine tools used in moldmaking are uniquely poised for evolution to new communication capabilities, OEE measurement, and CAD-based virtual machining advances. At the International Manufacturing Technology Show in September 2010, the MTConnect Institute proposed the establishment of the Legacy Machine Tool Connectivity Working Group (WG). This group will be essential in addressing the very important issue of providing best practices and overall guidance for the physical connectivity of the thousands of legacy machine tools in manufacturing shops around the globe. The group will be lead by David McPhail, President and CEO of Memex Automation Inc., and John Turner, Director of Technology for FA Consulting and Technology, as the co-chairs and consist of manufacturing equipment providers, ISVs, consultants, and users.
MTConnect Institute is an organization that develops and provides open standards intended to foster greater interoperability between manufacturing controls, devices and software applications by publishing data over networks using the Internet Protocol (IP). The standards offer a solution to the exchange of data from shop floor devices to higher level systems.  
Author Profile:
Thomas R. Cutler is the President & CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler, Inc, ( Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium of three thousand five hundred journalists and editors writing about trends in manufacturing. Cutler is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, Online News Association, American Society of Business Publication Editors, Committee of Concerned Journalists, as well as author of more than 400 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector. Cutler is the co-founder and contributor to a new business industrial library series found at Cutler can be contacted directly at


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