Machinists everywhere are already enjoying some of the benefits of the Industrial Internet of Things for CNC equipment and other tools. Like any other major breakthrough, adoption might be slow for the moment, but the excitement is anything but underwhelming. Below is a rundown of some of the biggest ways we expect the IIoT to disrupt CNC machining for the better.
Analytics, Reliability and Longevity
In any context, analytics is what empowers us to make discoveries, come to conclusions that eluded us previously, and generally gather information that makes our jobs easier and more efficient. So, how does the IIoT serve analytics in CNC machining processes? First, the IIoT makes it much easier to engage in proactive maintenance on the shop floor. CNC machines and other fabrication equipment can be complicated and usually feature small components or tool tips and cutting heads that wear out at regular intervals. Whether it’s included in the equipment as-designed or made possible by aftermarket sensors and add-ons, production equipment on factory floors and job shops tied to your IIoT can:
- Watch for signs of imminent failures, such as vibrations and higher-than-usual operating temperatures
- Detect when wear parts are close to the end of their useful lives and automatically alert maintenance personnel
- Avoid crippling downtime on critical machines by aiding in troubleshooting and elevating mechanical issues before complete failure
The IIoT is taking off in a big way, in part, because sensors and networking equipment reliably fall in price year over year. Such equipment will only become more accessible as machine shops adopt these techniques to make use of limited maintenance personnel and resources. It would be difficult to overstate the analytical advantages of connecting all major production equipment across a shop floor — and especially in multiple locations. Successful product throughput relies on the alignment of lots of variables, such as the coordination of labor and equipment during peak operational hours and how quickly raw materials are being transported, or how efficiently they’re being processed. Smart observational technologies like sensors ensure you’re getting as much information as possible about these variables, from the top to the bottom of your organization.
Smarter manufacturing and machining — made possible thanks to connected equipment and sensors — can grant organizations a host of tools for better managing energy use. You’ll have access to daily, hourly and even real-time information about how much power your processes are using. But one of the most useful ways to put this information to work in CNC machining is the pursuit of context. For example, it’s not enough to know your utility outlay was 40 percent higher in November than in October. That’s why the granular data the IIoT can provide is so useful. You’ll be able to measure:
- The relative power requirements of fabricating various products
- The use of consumables — gas, water and electricity — across multiple production facilities and even overseas
- Whether your climate control has to work harder to offset the temperature outdoors or the waste heat from your manufacturing equipment
Managing energy consumption gets even easier and more detailed as our CNC machines do. For example, your equipment can be programmed and even learn on its own how to recognize when it’s been left idle, then power itself down when production is on hold. Others might be able to automatically throttle their performance up or down according to the needs of the workpiece, to ensure more effort — and money — isn’t being spent than is necessary.
Retrofitting “Legacy” Equipment
One big question raised by the IIoT concerns the effect it might have on the lifespan of production equipment. It’s not unusual for some CNC machines to put in 20 useful years or more. So, what does it mean that so much of this mechanical equipment houses sensors and logic boards — and runs on sophisticated software? The rapid “churn” of new technologies would seem to be a deal-breaker when it comes to applying the IIoT to equipment meant to be a long-term investment, rather than something that’s upgraded at regular intervals, like a smartphone. Thankfully, the IIoT offers many retrofitting options for interested machine shops, some of which can expand the mechanical and technological capabilities even of machines that are years into their lifespans. For example, an OEM might make an upgrade available for the programmable logic boards inside their CNC machines that allows wireless or Ethernet connectivity, where before, such connectivity wasn’t possible. Such a change would significantly expand the machine’s usefulness and incorporate it into a facility-wide network, further aiding your analytics efforts.
Buying New Equipment
The buying of new equipment for manufacturing has always been done, in equal parts, to meet a current need and ensure the company’s long-term competitiveness. If anything, the arrival of the IIoT into the mainstream has added a sense of urgency to CNC companies’ equipment upgrade plans. According to reports, the pressure within the manufacturing industries to pivot to the IIoT has grown considerably, even if many business leaders aren’t quite sure where things go from here. According to a report published by a coalition led by the CMO Council, we know that:
- Among executives at large corporations, 52 percent indicated that the IIoT will have a “significant” impact on their industry within three years
- Only 1.5 percent of surveyed executives were confident their company had a clear vision for IIoT implementation, although 57 percent indicate they’re in the planning, implementation or pilot phases
Of the reasons cited for investing in IIoT-capable equipment, performing more cost- and resource-efficient operations led the way with 47 percent citing it as their top reason for making the investment. Next was the pursuit of new products and services, at 35 percent. As mentioned, not every piece of expensive equipment has to be replaced outright — the modular nature of many IIoT solutions for machining can make retrofitting a straightforward task. But, there’s also a rich selection of “satellite” equipment and even handheld tools that represent smaller investments, while still increasing your capabilities. Ensuring data visibility during stress testing and other critical checks during the manufacturing process can help you make more accurate and timely changes to your templates and tolerances before wider production efforts begin. A selection of IIoT-enabled tools for machining operations might include micrometers, calipers and other diagnostic instruments. For workflows that have strict traceability requirements for raw materials and the like, connected RFID tags and even barcodes can help furnish any custody, origin and location information necessary for remaining in compliance or within the terms of your contracts, as well as to ensure that finished products arrive at their destination in salable condition.
A Sea Change in CNC Machining
As you can see, there are lots of opportunities for CNC-related operations when it comes to the IIoT. Bringing aboard this technology is more of an investment in some cases than others, but for smaller operations, it’s a comfort knowing that even a “minor” strategic purpose could deliver significant benefits to your competitiveness, your use of resources and, ultimately, your profitability.