Valuable Insights: Gaining Transparency in Troubled Times

A discussion with Sandvik Coromant’s Bijal Patel about the importance of machine tool monitoring

Manufacturing solutions provider Sandvik Coromant launched the latest version of its MachiningInsights platform just over one year ago. An expansion of the company’s CoroPlus suite of connectivity solutions, the platform is said to give manufacturers greater visibility of their CNC machine tools and machining processes, and provides the tools needed to analyze, identify, and eliminate common sources of downtime and inefficiency.

Technical writer Kip Hanson had an opportunity recently to speak, senior digital machining specialist Bijal Patel, and ask him a few questions about digital manufacturing and the importance of asset monitoring. Here are his responses:

Kip Hanson: Many shops are already collecting data on machine utilization via timecards and job tickets. Why move to CoroPlus® MachiningInsights?

Bijal Patel: I’ll give you a small example from a customer I worked with recently. Before implementing MachiningInsights, the shop supervisor would spend each morning entering various performance indicators from the previous day’s production into a spreadsheet, then distribute that information to management and the people on the production floor. Today, anyone who wants to see this data can open a variety of real-time dashboards or reports and gain visibility to what’s happening right now, as opposed to what happened yesterday. That, and the supervisor now has more time to act on this information, instead of simply collecting it for historical purposes.

Kip Hanson: Real-time information is essential, but most of us would rather not spend any more time looking at reports than necessary. Isn’t there a better way to notify people of the need for corrective actions?

Bijal Patel: MachiningInsights gives users the ability to configure various e-mail or SMS alerts based on any one of several dozen conditions or events. Let’s say the operator adjusts the feedrate override, or a tool breaks, or the machine has sat idle for a certain number of minutes—these are just a few of the everyday situations that, when looked at from a macro view, contribute to machine downtime. And for shops that are running unattended or lightly attended, MachiningInsights can monitor spindle and servo loads, macro variables, operational status, and if the machine is equipped with the right sensors, temperature, power, and more.

Kip Hanson: What about the age of the machine tools and controls? Is MachiningInsights limited to shops with newer equipment?

Bijal Patel:. Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is accelerating the pace of change around connecting machines, but any CNC with an Ethernet port can send loads of information to MachiningInsights—far more than what most shops are currently collecting. Machines less than 10 to15 years old are probably ready to go already. And for those with older equipment, there are adapters available to make them network capable. Besides that, the only machine requirement is MTConnect, since that’s the protocol we use to communicate with our software when it comes to CNC machines. We can also connect to other types of manufacturing equipment using other standard communication protocols.

Kip Hanson: My understanding is that MTConnect is limited to one-way communication. Isn’t that a serious drawback?

Bijal Patel: I can see the argument for bi-directional communication, but the developers of MTConnect had some excellent reasons to make it unidirectional. Having worked in the shop for many years, I don’t know how we could remotely control equipment that has human beings around it and guarantee their safety. So that’s one part of it. The other is that two-way communications make a machine tool more difficult to manage from a cybersecurity point of view. Many of today’s CNCs are running Windows, which has historically been known to present occasional vulnerabilities. By limiting the information flow, we help close that door and make certain that a shop’s million-dollar multitasking machine won’t be held for ransom.

Kip Hanson: What if I want to collect other information, such as reason codes or operator input? Does MachiningInsights support this?

Bijal Patel: Absolutely. There’s an operator panel feature available, and you can use an external device such as a tablet PC, a laptop, or even a smartphone. Either way, an operator can either type in the desired information or tap a preconfigured button to indicate, for example, why the machine has stopped or that they just changed a drill. They can also do things like notify the tool crib that they’re about to run out of inserts, or enter a ticket with the engineering department that there’s a problem. Any or all of these activities can be recorded in MachiningInsights for analysis, or further escalated if necessary. We can also use that same interface to present operator instructions based on these events—for instance, if the spindle load exceeds a specific value during a roughing operation, we might pop up a set of work instructions for changing that tool.

Kip Hanson: It sounds complicated. Do I need a computer expert to manage it?

Bijal Patel: In terms of IT support, it’s quite simple, and Sandvik Coromant manages most of it. That said, all of the machines have to be on the local network, and you do need a server of some kind—for small shops with a handful of machines, this might be nothing more than an available laptop, while larger shops might want to invest in a dedicated server or virtual server. You’ll also need an Internet connection from your local server to our systems. All of the data is stored in the Cloud, and you can decide how much or how little of that data you wish to upload.

Kip Hanson: What if I have an ERP system and want to avoid yet another software package? Will MachiningInsights talk to other software packages?

Bijal Patel: we have a standard API (application programming interface) that tech-savvy shops can use to connect MachiningInsights to their other software systems. It’s secure, easy to set up, and can be done with or without our support. It’s entirely up to the customer and their IT team.

Kip Hanson: I’m interested. What next? And I don’t want visitors in my facility right now. Can I install it myself?

Bijal Patel: I’ll answer the second question first. MachiningInsights is a subscription-based Software as a Service, or SaaS, so must be installed by Sandvik Coromant. However, this can all be accomplished remotely. Once the customer has identified the machines they wish to monitor, they pay a one-time installation fee, give us access to their server via TeamViewer or similar remote desktop software, and we take it from there. MachiningInsights comes with a set of preconfigured reports and dashboards, so it’s easy to get up and running quickly, but the customer is free to modify these or build their own from scratch.

Once everything is ready, users can just log on to their MachiningInsights website and view whatever they’ve been given access to by the shop’s administrator. As with all SaaS products, there is a subscription fee based on the platform level and the number of machines they wish to monitor, but I can tell you that most of our customers have found this a small price to pay for the enhanced visibility, ease-of-use, and significantly greater opportunities for continuous improvement. ROI is typically in the realm of weeks or few months, certainly not years. It’s just a great tool.

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