20 July 2019

The Taming of the Screw. How CNC-Machines Shape Our Everyday Life

Ready for a journey to the world of machine tools? Boring? I promise you not! You may not be aware, but you would not be able to read this text on your laptop or mobile phone without them. And forget about the coffee you might have thought of drinking just now. Yes, it’s true – none of this would exist without machine tools and continuous innovation for this industry. Come and see…

Sitting at the computer, holding a cup of coffee: A daily scene that would not happen if there weren’t machine tools to create the numerous parts everyday products are made of – from coffee machines to computer screens.

Imagine you woke up one day with a nagging feeling of having overslept. You search around for your alarm clock, but cannot find it. So you hastily jump into some clothes and rush into the bathroom to brush your teeth. But no matter how hard you look, it isn’t there. A glance into the mirror has you staring in rapt horror: your teeth have fallen out! You rush to the sideboard in the lobby where you keep your mobile phone intending to call your dentist, but – you’ve guessed – it’s gone. 

Ok, keep calm, get your car keys … no, gone, too. Maybe you’ve left them in ignition. You step outside, but the driveway is empty. The sun is blazing, so you go back inside to fetch your sunglasses. Yes, they’ve vanished into thin air. After a cumbersome march through the heat you finally reach your dentist’s office. He says, he cannot help you, because implants do not exist.

What sounds like a gruesome nightmare could easily be reality in a world without CNC machines. They are crucial to the production of almost every consumer good that shapes our everyday life and form the backbone of our standard of living. CNC machines are used to make parts of alarm clocks, toothbrushes, sunglasses, dental implants, cars and airplanes. They cut, drill, mill, nibble and swivel with absolute and repeat accuracy and industrial precision.

A short history of a great technology

Time for a new class…
…the world’s first numerical control.

The world economic crisis of the 1930s called for new ways of reducing cost and rationalizing industrial production. This led to the introduction of Numerical Control (NC) for machine tools. The path of motion of machine tools could now be controlled automatically through information stored in punch cards. Siemens patented the first world-wide NC standard in 1960 and registered the trademark Sinumerik in 1964. 

In the 1970s the first Computerized Numerical Control systems were launched under the brand names Sinumerik 500C (1973), Sinumerik System 7 (1976) and Sinumerik System 8 (1979). Now numerical algorithms were integrated into customized IT operating systems. Machine handling, to a great extent, was passed on from humans to algorithms. Without Numerical Control the resurgence of Europe from the rubble of World War II would not have been possible. NC technology was a major driver behind post-war economic growth.

Machine operators became machine programmers as Sinumerik controls were equipped with a graphical user interface and an open core for easy human-machine interaction (HMI) and reprogramming. Sinumerik systems could be customized for various scales of manufacturing ranging from industrial mass production to small family-owned manufacturing shops.

Yes, that’s also built with CNC technology!

But let’s get back to that nightmarish morning. Well, it was just a bad dream after all. You wake up. The alarm clock is on the nightstand. And it hasn’t gone off because it’s Sunday and there is no work today. The sun is shining gently through the window blinds. You get up and enjoy a fresh brew from your espresso machine (yes, that’s built with CNC technology!). Then you walk up to your vinyl collection. What’s the right music for a cosy Sunday morning? And guess what – again CNC machines come into play.

Just think, how hard it is to achieve the degree of precision needed for the parts of high-end record players with manual craftsmanship. On the other hand, these high-end vinyl players are often produced in such low quantities and with such a high degree of customization, it used to be impossible to automate their manufacture with CNC machine technology. The investment was simply too high and customization usually entailed purchasing a whole new machine. As a trained CNC engineer and chief marketer for CNC equipment I am greatly inspired by this real life story: High-end custom-made record players are brought to life with a Sinumerik 808D CNC milling machine.

And if, after that nightmare of waking up in a world without CNC machines, you might feel the need to rock out, there is another inspiring product that comes to life with modern machine tools: electric guitars. Most parts are made with a CNC milling machine using Sinumerik 840D sl.

Without machine tools there would be no cell phones, no cars, no tooth brushes, no coffee machines, no affordable dental implants, no sunglasses and no airplanes. 

Today, I work as chief marketer and promotion strategist for CNC systems and all related equipment at Siemens. When my friends ask me: „Marco, but what do you actually do?“, I enumerate all the daily life devices produced with CNC-machines. To most people this comes as a big surprise. Without machine tools there would be no cell phones, no cars, no tooth brushes, no coffee machines, no affordable dental implants, no sunglasses and no airplanes. 

New requirements due to increasing degree of customization

Today’s consumers demand an increasing degree of customization: personalized sneakers, limited edition smart phone cases and individualized cars. In the 70s and 80s most people ended up with the same coffee machine, the same toaster, the same vacuum cleaner, because manufacturers often needed new machines for new product lines. With the increasing computerization and network connectivity industrial production of customized products has become feasible.

Machine handlers have since turned into machine programmers. The goals for CNC technology are still the same as when I first started as a CNC engineer in the times of punch tapes and no computer displays:

  • increase productivity
  • detect causes of failure quickly
  • minimize down-times (for maintenance and reconfigurations)

The lasting trend of personalization for end products and the growing complexity and quantity of relevant data now drove Siemens to push CNC technology to a whole new level. Back in the 90s we worked with around 300 machine parameters. A skilled and experienced engineer could have them memorized. 

With the number of parameters soaring to over 10.000 in today’s machines, this is now beyond human reach. Back in the days of the punch tapes I could still decipher the ASCII codes. Today this information is not accessible by eyesight and the complexity of data brought various digital analysis tools into the picture.

With the Sinumerik ONE Siemens breaks new ground in many ways. It is not just an update of previous CNC products, but the first digital native CNC that enables a seamless interplay of the virtual and the real world. Investing into a Sinumerik ONE solution can be compared to buying a whole new car with a new engine concept rather than just a newer used version of your old one.

It is now possible to digitally develop and validate machines without bending a single piece of metal for building a prototype. Raw parts in the shipping or aerospace industry can be very costly, and when something goes wrong, this investment is lost. Milling of such large parts can now be digitally tested and optimized before touching a workpiece. There is no need for investments in costly components, only in time. 

When I dream of the future machine tools I see controls that adapt to the needs of humans, not vice versa, and machines that can be readjusted easily according to consumer trends, production volumes and shop floor capacities.

This paves the way for the digital turn in the machine tool market. It opens the field for a whole new way of developing machines and re-thinking industrial production as a whole.

I’m sure you remember that nightmare: waking up in a world without CNC machines. Well, I like stories with a happy ending. When I dream of the future machine tools I see controls that adapt to the needs of humans, not vice versa, and machines that can be readjusted easily according to consumer trends, production volumes and shop floor capacities. In the end, you might find yourself waking up in a world where you can design your own alarm clock and have it produced and delivered in no time together with your ergonomically fitted toothbrush.

And this world will be no dream.

Please feel free to share your experiences and inquiries about Sinumerik One and CNC machining. I am eager to hear what you think!

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