Friday, 19th July 2019

Building the digital machine shop of the future

Every industry, from automotive and aerospace to machinery and energy, depends on part manufacturers and machine shops. Often these are small departments or smaller businesses who face increasing competition, and they have to work with new materials and technologies, as part of complex supply chains that are subject to ever stricter regulations, on shorter and shorter development timescales. By Armin Grunewald, Vice President Business Development, Manufacturing Engineering Software, Siemens.

A mould-maker in Europe has to be competitive with manufacturers in less regulated markets as well as local firms, while delivering products faster to fit with product development lifecycles that are half of what they used to be. For instance, in the automotive industry it used to take nine or ten years to develop a new vehicle but that time is down to four years, which means the turnaround time for vehicle components is shorter as well.

To improve production efficiency, part manufacturers often try to automate some steps of the process by using separate software systems, spreadsheets, and paper documentation. Unless it’s done carefully, this to often results in a disconnected process with pieces of valuable information and critical know-how not being utilised effectively. This approach doesn’t make the manufacturers more efficient or competitive.

To achieve the next level of production efficiency, and to keep up with the competition, machine shops need a new business model that lets them take advantage of the latest techniques. Using one integrated software system creates consistent models and processes and connects planning in the design office with production on the shop floor, though a ‘digital thread’ that runs through the whole business streamlines the process of producing a part, lowering costs and increasing speeds.

Instead of building a computer-aided-design (CAD) model that has to be exported and imported by the software systems used at each of the different manufacturing stages, you can create a ‘digital twin’; a precise virtual copy of the physical product that moves from one department to another without losing any accuracy and helps deliver a part that is exactly what the customer needs.

This digitalised manufacturing process immediately makes even small machine shops faster and more efficient, but it also scales to help them grow their business. Digitalisation doesn’t just avoid having to manually transfer and tweak the model at each stage of the process. Using one software system and one precise, consistent model allows different teams to work in parallel, with the operators checking the process plan while the parts are still being programmed in the computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) module. This approach enables automation of the whole process while still giving you flexibility and adaptability.

If any changes are made to a design, they automatically flow through to every stage of the process without any reprogramming. You can compare the model to the finished parts using coordinate measuring machines (CMM) that send information back to the same software that programs the turning and milling machines. That makes it easier to find and fix any manufacturing problems, giving you a closed loop for design and process improvements.

This improves quality as well as reducing setup time and increasing throughput; you can create more accurate parts more quickly and move on to the next job faster. That next job might even build on models that you’ve created in the past and refine for a new design, rather than having to start from scratch for every new project. Reusing your company best practices and know-how is a powerful way to improve efficiency and quality.

Using digitalisation to make machine shop manufacturing accurate and automated also makes it easier for even smaller companies to leverage new technologies like robotics and additive manufacturing, which rely even more on a digital process.

Robots have been used in part manufacturing primarily for setup and tending, including loading parts onto machine tools and then unloading them. Increasingly, they’re now being used for the actual machining, because a robot can drill the hundreds of thousands of holes needed for a modern airplane wing accurately, working directly from the digital model. That doesn’t work unless the model flows seamlessly from design, to NC and robotics programming, to the shop floor.

3D printing and other additive manufacturing tools enable companies to produce parts that were simply impossible to make before, or to use new materials and design styles that improve the performance, reduce the weight and simply the assembly of parts, but taking advantage of them means adopting very different design techniques than for parts that will be turned and milled. For example, parts designed so that they can be 3D printed efficiently, using the least amount of material look nothing like conventionally designed parts. With generative design, designers can create structures that are much lighter but still deliver the same performance, that might be hollow or have highly organic designs; but they also need to learn to avoid unnecessary support structures that slow down production because they have to be removed after manufacturing. Using design software that can perform topological optimisation of conventionally designed parts is key. Additive manufacturing methods enable you to produce these next-generation products with minimal stages of setups and tooling.

Digital machine shop seamlessly unites key elements from design, through manufacturing. This data-driven process that connects people, data and equipment ensures that you build the products your customers want, grow profits and gain efficiency.

The digital machine shop in action

You don’t have to be an industrial giant to benefit from a digitalised manufacturing workflow. Austrian mould-making company HAIDLMAIR started as a small blacksmith business but it’s consistently adopted new technologies. When the current CEO, Mario Haidlmair, took over from his father, he realised how inefficient it was to use separate and sometimes incompatible software to design parts and drive machine tools. By adopting Siemens software, they’ve created a streamlined process from beginning to end that creates a digital twin of every part; “in the CAM department, we’re building up the same situation we have on the machine,” Haidlmair explains.

Mould making involves a lot of different departments and all of them use the same model for everything from part and mould design, to simulating the part before it’s ever made to check performance, to driving turning machines and 3- and 5-axis milling machines with Siemens’ NX CAM software, to final assembly. Because the models, and cutting tool data, and process plans, and NC programs are all in Siemens’ Teamcenter, all departments have access to a single source of information. This digital thread enables the entire team to efficiently collaborate. A machine operator can check the programmed CAD model and work with the designer and NC programmer to quickly resolve any possible issues before machining a part.

Having an integrated software system for designing parts, controlling machinery and managing the process lowers costs – Haidlmair estimates the 15-20 percent-it saves adds up to “hundreds of thousands of euros every year”. Another advantage in their very competitive market; “shorter delivery times to our customers.”

To further automate the process and increase production efficiency, Haidlmair is leveraging feature-based machining in NX CAM software. “We want to build up about 80 percent of our electrodes to machine fully automatic without any human interaction,” says Stefan Pendl, system manager for CAM. It’s not just about cutting costs; Haidlmair’s ambition is for this small manufacturing shop “to become the best mould maker in the world” and he wants the business to stand out for the quality of its products. “I’m very optimistic that we can achieve lower prices in the future with even higher quality than nowadays. And I guess that’s what every customer would like to see.”

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