Long before the pandemic upset the global labor environment, REGO-FIX was working on limiting human intervention in the production processes. There are some things you cannot automate, but you don’t need human interaction to swap a work piece from one machine to another. One operator in front of one machine is just not possible anymore. There is a robot at every machine on our shop floor. We try to create ghost shifts, where we prepare a pallet of 25 or 100 pieces and the robot can work by itself. That’s why a single operator can be responsible for up to six or seven machines.
Hardware is one thing, but the real magic comes with artificial intelligence that makes processes more intelligent. Today we can insert a basic sensory device into a toolholder. The toolholder senses what is happening in the machine — for example, that the cutting edge of the tool is getting too hot — and tells the operator to reduce cutting speed. The next step circumvents the operator, providing feedback to the machine directly so it can automatically adjust coolant flow, reduce the cutting speed, or note if a cutting tool change will be necessary. In the future I believe it will be possible for the machine itself to perceive it is going too fast or too slow and adjust cutting parameters to achieve optimum performance.
CAM systems simulate how long it will take to machine a workpiece, assuming that all elements of the machining system operate perfectly. Problems arise when a new material or machine tool inconsistencies join the mix. A skilled operator can observe a process and correct problems via experience that the machine doesn’t have. An intelligent process will incorporate a learning curve into the machining software.
Intelligent metrology is another upcoming innovation. On each of our measuring products we are going to put an interactive QR code that will be readable with any kind of a standard smart phone or tablet. Every operator with a cellphone can take a picture and get the test specifications in real time, for example the calibration certificate of the products he’s holding in his hands.
An intelligent process can add whole new levels of process management. The act of toolchanging is simple, especially with the REGO-FIX PowRgrip® system that offers one-button clamping in less than ten seconds. The challenge is knowing what is happening before and after the tool change. Determining if the tool has been damaged and whether it can be reused will require visual analysis. Participation by providers of measurement equipment, machine tools, cutting tools, and camera systems will work together to develop that technology.
These sorts of things are possible today. There is a willingness and openness on the end-user side to implement these technologies. The hardware and the software already exist. What is needed is the creation of a digital twin to replicate the toolholder and the process in the software. Just as there is a DIN standard for a toolholder, there must be a generic standard for the digital twin to assure that it will be compatible among all different hardware elements.
The world is not perfect. There will always be an X parameter that will be different. It’s a lot of “ifs” and a lot of theory, but we will get there, and not just because of cost pressures. Intelligent processing is needed to make best use of future labor in smart manufacturing. When we have the intelligence to fully simulate a process it will be possible to minimize labor and operate thousands of machines unmanned or, at least, manned minimally.
I think we have taken some very good steps in the right direction. There are examples already on YouTube, and information on the internet about innovative manufacturing. We need to make the jobs in manufacturing more appealing. When candidates are attracted to work in manufacturing, education and on-site training can address gaps in skills and experience.
REGO-FIX is working very closely with other Swiss manufacturers as well as machine tool builders, manufacturing technology providers and technical universities. These workgroups help encourage a spirit of innovation. It is very important to realize the spirit is not just a mindset. REGO-FIX has an intensive R&D department that has several five CNC machines, so we aren’t just talking and having Zoom sessions and making PowerPoints. We actually make chips in a practical industrial environment to continue to improve and create truly intelligent machining operations.