IMTS 2008: The \"Rosetta Stone\" of Interoperability and More

More than 90,000 attendees from 119 countries have assembled in Chicago to be privy to pretty much every type of manufacturing machine and technology being used on today's shop floor. Here are some highlights.

Technologies at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) range from milling machines, waterjets and robotic end effectors to sensors, cylinders and jig-less fixtures.

Fanuc Robotics is demonstrating a massive machine that's been claimed as the largest and strongest six-axis robot in the world. The idea for the M-2000iA, is that it is an alternative to using multiple robots to position large work pieces. At IMTS, the six-arm, heavy-duty robot is simulating a coordinated welding sequence to weld brackets to a tractor frame that the robot is whipping around other robots — including a vision-enabled robot, which picks piled brackets and places them on the tractor frame.

According to Fanuc Robotics, the M-2000iA/900L robot offers a 900 kg payload and is designed to meet the requirements for managing tractor, truck and automotive frames and parts. There is also another model M-2000iA/1200L that offers a 1,200 kg payload . . . a beast, though sadly not on display.

In a demo here this week, at the MAG Industrial Automation Systems booth, Next Engine has displayed technology that could open up reverse-engineering technology to a much wider user base: a low-cost reverse-engineering system that includes a 3-D scanner and some sophisticated software. The company used its system to reverse-engineer a Ferrari (OK, so it was really a toy model). The cost is 1/10 that of competing systems.

But it's a new open-source communication protocol standard called MTConnect that really has a pervasive presence at IMTS.

MTConnect, a collaboration between manufacturing technology and computer science, is a communication protocol standard for interconnectability between devices, equipment and higher-level applications. The program is not creating hardware or special purpose software to link machines and systems together. Rather, the idea is to allow for devices, equipment and systems to output data in an independent format that can be read by any other device using the same standard format to read data.

MTConnect, as noted in a presentation, converts "confusion of data into coherent language."

Basically, MTConnect serves as "middleware" between the machine controller and higher-level applications. It provides a means to describe, for instance, actual and command positions of a machine tool's axes of motion as well as pretty much any data a sensor can capture. And, it offers basic alarms and notification functionality. Using XML-based descriptions of various machine functions (e.g., spindle time, machine tool temperature, power status, etc.), you can access and manage the shop floor from anywhere.

The new standard is lightweight (not much coding required) and extensible (see benefits below). And it's free — not like "free when you buy the condo" free, but actually free. It's open, so nobody owns it (no license fees), with all the software and specifications available online at no cost.

Among the claimed benefits of MTConnect:

  • For High Level — Decreases cost and risk while increasing choices and flexibility;

  • For Manufacturers — Simplifies ability to obtain process parameters (e.g., cycle time, throughput and yield) while fostering the ability to obtain genealogy and traceability; and

  • For Machine Builders — Decreases risk because it's proven technology (like Java or HTML on the Internet) and enables a common solution for all customers — so you can concentrate on selling equipment and services rather than developing pre-competitive tech.

In the end, addressing data from multiple sources on a common platform should make processes more portable, which improves flexibility and reduces ad-hoc risk.

Officially introduced just this week, as a featured technology at the show's Emerging Technology Center, MTConnect already has the backing of big-time machine tool and control vendors. Members serving on the MTConnect Technical Advisory Board, which is fleshing out the standard, include among others: Bosch Rexroth Corp., FANUC Robotics America Inc., Remmele Engineering, Inc., GE Aviation and GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms Inc., MAG Industrial Automation Systems, Mazak Corp., the Laboratory of Manufacturing and Sustainability at the University of California-Berkeley and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

People on the floor and elsewhere throughout the show have referred to MTConnect as "the Rosetta Stone," the "keys to the kingdom" and "the most exciting development since numerical control." A bit of hyperbole, sure. But it's tough not to get caught up in the excitement of its promise.

According to the exhibit, manufacturers spend $90 billion a year on interoperability issues. Many large users of machine tools already have proprietary solutions to their data-connectivity problems, but the MTConnect approach could open up new doors for small companies and university researchers.

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