Manufacturing is getting speed-smart

In this Big Picture Interview, new technologies are accelerating the shift to smarter, more-nimble production.

Martin Hardwick is president of STEP Tools, a Troy, NY-based technology company working to help manufacturers make machining more efficient. The company's Smart Machining Twin, which it is piloting with a small group of clients this year, lets users access a website offering real-time machine performance data and guidance on how to optimize machine efficiency while putting minimal wear and tear on the machine. STEP Tools also is a member of the Chicago-based Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), a public-private partnership – and part of the federal National Network for Manufacturing Innovation – that aims to foster and support research, technologies, and training to advance U.S. manufacturing. Hardwick spoke with Plant Services about changing paradigms for machine operation in a fast-paced manufacturing environment and the value of taking part in a digital manufacturing collaboration.

PS: We hear a lot about increasing demands for production flexibility – the ability to ramp up, scale back, and/or customize production quickly based on customers' fluctuating needs. As someone on the software and controls side of things, what's your take?

MH: You're exactly right. Tooling is becoming more sophisticated, and demand is becoming more variable; people need to adjust.

Driving a machine tool is a bit like driving a car. You can drive from New York City to Washington, D.C., as fast as possible if you need to be there as quickly as possible. But on the other hand, if you've got lots of time, it makes more sense to reduce the speed and go as gently as possible to maximize fuel and to reduce the wear on the car. The question is, how can you do that? You need to know how to control the accelerator.

In manufacturing, people have been crude about (speed control) for many years. They just fix the speed and use that. What you really want to be able to do is adjust it according to circumstances. Just like with a car – you can go faster, as long as you're not going in a tight corner; you can go slower, as long as the engine's not going to stall. The questions are, when would it stall, and where would it spin off the road? With recent developments in computer technology, we can measure the tolerances as we're machining.

PS: How does that play into what you're doing at STEP Tools?

MH: Now that we can share manufacturing information in real time, what we've done with the Smart Machining Twin is connect a website to the machine tool so there's this interactive, ongoing simulation of the machining while it's happening. What that does is allows the operator to go and check out whether or not everything's correct; it allows the owner to take a look at what the current state of the machining is; and it allows third parties like cutter vendors to get in there and say, "Hey, we think we've got a much better solution with our new cutter here; let me show you what would happen."

Today, cutter vendors can go and do a site visit, take a look at what's happening, and make a suggestion for a better solution. But now, you're talking about the cost of airfare and highly skilled people's time and that sort of thing. So you can only really afford to do that if you know you're going to be making a massive number of parts. With something like the Smart Machining Twin, they can see what's going on via a website. They can just dial in, take a look, and the same experts who previously would have gotten on a plane can instead take a look at it (remotely), and also the experts no longer need to know quite so much, because the twin can do an awful lot of the advising.

The enabler has been the reduction in cost of computing power. Now, in the time the machine is doing a single operation, you can do about two billion computations on a desktop machine. So you can do an awful lot of run-time checking that wasn't previously possible. The question is, how does that become usable on the shop floor? We think we've hit on it with digital twins and interactive run-time simulation.

PS: You're a small company – 10 employees based in upstate New York. What value does being part of a national manufacturing innovation collaborative like DMDII bring you?

MH: Project management and facilitating connections are two of the top benefits (of DMDII membership) for us. I think our partnership with DMDII really is only just beginning. Now I anticipate we'll be working closely together to get DMDII technology deployed into member companies.

The main value of all of this is it's making people believe that manufacturing can now change. A small organization such as STEP Tools on its own doesn’t have much hope of making such a sea change. But now that all of these initiatives are ongoing … folks can see that it's got to happen, and now's the time to invest in it.