Missed connections

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In theory, it’s a great idea. Network every machine in a factory, record every action, analyze that data for patterns, predict when machines are going to fail, and use the power of modern computing to improve every aspect of the manufacturing process.

Call it the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) or Industry 4.0, the hype is the same. Advanced computing technology will revolutionize how manufacturers design and build products and save everyone money along the way.

In practice, it’s a lot tougher. That was one of the takeaways from a wide-ranging forum at the EMO Hannover 2017 where leaders of machine tool companies discussed the opportunities and challenges they face.

The biggest question is who’s in charge. Many toolmakers have developed monitoring technologies for their own equipment, but that doesn’t provide a universal control unless manufacturers get all of their tools from the same provider.

“Customers want to have the optimum milling machine, the optimum grinding machine for the application, so they will have a mix of different machine tool builders,” says Starrag Group Vice Chairman Frank Brinken. “Then, you want to interconnect these machines? Good luck.”

Sharing data and controls between machines from a variety of manufacturers creates a challenge. Who’s responsible for creating the system? Who’s to blame when machines fail to talk to each other? Who stores and analyzes the data?

Talk to machine tool producers, and the answer is clear – not us.

Tool producers are still focusing the bulk of their R&D efforts on improving their machines’ capabilities. Creating software tools is great, but it doesn’t generate nearly as much revenue as lowering cycle times.

“Our main purpose is still producing parts and components and making chips,” says Heller Group COO Manfred Maeir. “We as management have to be careful to divide what’s possible from what makes sense and what our customers are willing to pay us for. That’s the only thing that counts.”

Several of the participants urged control producers, such as Siemens and Fanuc, to take a dominant role in making data interoperable between machines. But even handing off responsibility to control makers doesn’t answer questions about data ownership and processing and what sort of costs manufacturers should face for adding these new capabilities.

As the conversations continued, the picture being drawn started to look a lot more like the three-letter enterprise software world – CAD, CAM, CRM, ERP, MES, PLM – a collection of systems that require third-party integrators to forge connections.

It’s a world where few products are usable off the shelf, often requiring months of custom software integration. And it can be a frustrating world where tracking down who is responsible for problems can lead to more finger pointing than answers.

Still, the advantages of connected manufacturing are clear, and businesses are spending resources chasing the Industry 4.0 dream. But a clear sign from the tool builders is that making it all work won’t be cheap or easy.