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PLANT

Data game-changer

A new industry standard retrieves “unretrievable” data that helps plants improve output and productivity.


June 25, 2012
by Matt Powell, Assistant Editor

Canadian manufacturers are getting an earful from analysts, economists and government talking heads about needing to be more productive, but there’s a new movement afoot that has developed an industry standard data stream tool to help them do a better job of managing their equipment, and boost productivity by ensuring it’s running on all cylinders.

Dave McPhail, president of Memex Automation Inc., makes money connecting shop floor equipment and machinery to the internet. When he’s not busy with the production of hardware and software products coming out of his Burlington, Ont. plant, McPhail is an active member of the MTConnect movement, which has re-written the dictionary on shop-floor data streaming.

Developed in 2008 by the Association for Manufacturing Technology, the University of California and Georgia Institute for Technology, MTConnect is a manufacturing industry standard that facilitates the retrieval of process information from numerically controlled tools. Based on XML and HTTP, it’s designed to foster interoperability between control devices and software applications by publishing data through networks using ethernet and internet connections.

A software adapter takes data from proprietary devices, converts it to intermediary formats and sends it to an HTTP server-agent that converts it to the right units at the same time.

MTConnect identifies five players in the shop-floor connectivity system:

• Device. A machine tool.
• Adapter. Optional piece of software (or hardware) that links the data source and proprietary data definition in the device to the MTConnect Data definition.
• Agent. Software that collects, arranges and stores data from the device or adapter.
• Network. The physical connection between the data source (device) and the consumer (application).
• Application. The requestor and consumer of MTConnect data.

The standard’s biggest selling point is the end of repeating data retrieval from individual applications, an action that increases installation times and cost, as well as the long-term costs of maintaining each application.

Since 1992 McPhail has worked on solutions that allow manufacturers to connect the shop floor with the top floor, but he was hesitant to hop on the MTConnect bandwagon when he first heard about it in 2008.

“We definitely took a hands-off approach between 2008 and 2010. We’d seen several standard groups come and go and we didn’t want to invest a lot of time if it fell through the cracks.”

McPhail opted to wait until 2010 when he saw the technology in action at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. The MTConnect team convinced him to let them connect a 24-year-old controller to the standard’s software.

“Within two hours of their guys working with our guys, we were streaming data from our booth to theirs,” he says. “That proved the process was pretty simple.”

So simple in fact, Memex recently released its line of MTConnect adapters, universal connectors that tap digital signals from almost all shop-floor machinery. Customers connect the adapter to the MTConnect agent (software) by sending signals through an I/O ribbon cable and a 50-pin Honda connector that embeds and maps selected signals to the MTConnect dictionary. Two versions of the adapter – the Ax650-MTC and Ax750-MTC – are available, the latter developed to work with Fanuc robotics through link bus cable.

How to use the standard
Both adapters accept up to 96 digital inputs, 3-30 VDC in six groups from legacy controls. All inputs are optically isolated and an on-board IDC connector allows in-line connections to ribbon cables. Multiple adapters daisy-chain together to allow 96 monitored outputs per machine.

“We’ve spent eight months and more than $100,000 developing the adapter to fill that market space as MTConnect continues to catch on,” he says.

McPhail has also co-chaired the MTConnect Connectivity white paper, a guide for manufacturers that outlines uses for the standard and to determine whether or not it would would work with their operations. (Download a copy at http://mtconnectonline.com/getting-started/whitepapers/manufacturers.apsx.)

The white paper took a year to complete, which categorizes different types of machines and how they connect to the standard.

“The purpose was to develop a data dictionary that conceptualizes data across the shop floor,” he says.

The white paper also outlines potential applications. For example, a shop owner with an equipment and shop floor control system can use MTConnect to determine the time it takes to make a part from start to finish, or check operating speeds. It also sends alerts or alarms if the standard recognizes inefficiencies along the supply chain.

McPhail calls it “a game-changer.”

The standard eliminates the proprietary nature of communication, replacing it with a universal protocol. The price of data capture implementation should come down because the engineering is already done.

“You should be able to buy an MTConnect compliant application for less money than a homegrown solution,” he says. “There’s a huge industry demand for this because there has yet to be a way to get data out of machines using the internet through an industry standard data language. Now there’s a dictionary that tells shop owners what everything means.”

…And a standard that brings shop-floor connectivity into the 21st century.

Comments? E-mail mpowell@plant.ca.