30 July 2019

“Virtual” genes for machine tools (part 2)

The processes of machine tool manufacturing and operation are moving closer together. “Virtual spaces” are being created where machine builders and operators can design, coordinate, and implement customized solutions.

As I explained in my last article, machine tool operators – and especially contract CNC manufacturing companies – will need to reconfigure their businesses in order to handle ever-smaller batch sizes. The social trend toward more customized consumer products will also impact machine-tool manufacturers by extension. In the future, more and more machines – at least on the detail level – will be tailored to the requirements of their operators. This means that machine manufacturers will also have to get ready for a paradigm shift in their production processes.

Today mechanical design is already being done primarily on CAD systems. However, designing and commissioning automation systems – in essence, the CNC equipment – is mainly being performed on the “live object,” meaning on real prototype machines. In light of increasing customization and shorter times to market, this process is no longer efficient. That’s why some manufacturers are gradually starting to virtualize their automation design and commissioning. In this context, however, full-featured digital twins are still out of the question. The actuators and sensors and the machine’s mechanics are simulated on a simulation computer, but the CNC equipment is still real. That’s why we talk about “hardware-in-the-loop.”

Hardware is becoming software-in-the-loop

This is where the software portfolio of the latest generation of Siemens CNCs, Sinumerik ONE, comes into play. Create MyVirtual Machine is an important step toward the full-featured digital twin. A virtual model of the CNC is now available. In addition to the NC core and user interface, this model also contains the PLC as well as central components of the drive software, which allows most of the software development to be done entirely virtually. Hardware is now becoming software-in-the-loop!

As a result, engineering processes can be performed much more efficiently – in other words, faster and more economically – and this is a key factor as machines are increasingly customized.

However, several discussions that I’ve had with machine manufacturers’ corporate and sales managers have revealed other extremely interesting perspectives on software-in-the-loop, which is supposedly only intended for engineering automation.

“Virtual showroom”

The “virtual showroom” has always been a central theme. Individual solutions can be discussed with potential customers much earlier in the process. In other words, the sales process for machines is initiated much sooner. Another topic of discussion has been the machine acceptance test. Obviously, the final acceptance test is performed on the operator’s shop floor with the machine in operation – but at least a preliminary acceptance test of the machine can be conducted virtually. This is hugely beneficial, especially in the case of large machines that first have to be assembled at the operator’s premises.

Software in the Loop is also a very useful tool in the event of a problem. Malfunctions in automation can be diagnosed even more efficiently than on the real machine from the service center. For overseas transactions, the benefits are enormous.

This is how the processes of machine manufacturing and operation – which are largely separated today – can be brought closer together.

I look forward to hearing from you! Leave a question or a comment. What do you think about the digital transformation as it applies to the use of machine tools?

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