The Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) is trying its hand at simplifying communications in the complex manufacturing world, developing a standard that could eliminate so-called islands of automation. MTConnect, developed with input from equipment makers, users, and other standards bodies, aims to help data flow throughout a production environment.
The standard, publicly demonstrated at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September, is a middleware standard that simplifies data transfer from existing formats now in wide use up to higher level systems. It uses the ubiquitous XML (Extensible Markup Language) standard, which offers a flexible system for exchanging semi-structured machine-readable data.
MTConnect allows connectivity from the lowest end of the process chain to the highest design or process planning tool. That’s expected to provide significant assistance for the aircraft industry.
“Aerospace suppliers are highly interested in this," said Scott Hibbard, Vice President of Technology for Bosch Rexroth Electric Drives and Control. "It will help them monitor the productivity of their equipment.”
That’s because so many aircraft systems and components are customized or have low volumes. Using the standard should help increase a company's ability to produce a good part on the first run of the machine, said Hibbard, who is also a Chairman for AMT.
The standard aims to provide a common communications approach, eliminating the huge range of styles now used throughout the broad industrial world. “When you write a program that uses this data, you don’t have to worry about the equipment supplier; everything will look like it’s from the same data source,” said David Dornfeld, a Mechanical Engineering Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Dornfeld noted that an engineer needing information on network throughput could quickly gather that information using the standard. Another example might be to check on the status of a CNC process that runs for 20-30 h. Data can be viewed on Firefox or Internet Explorer.
The MTConnect Technical Advisory Group feels the standard will have strong success in coming years. That’s partially because it can be implemented in just a few hours, a fact that explains why MTConnect is gaining support from a broad group.
“AMT is pulling in users. A lot of standards in the past were driven by either equipment vendors or customers. You need support from both groups,” Hibbard said.
GE Aviation is one of the major customers. Suppliers include Bosch Rexroth, Fanuc Robotics America, Mori Seiki, Sun Microsystems, and Mag Industrial Automation Systems. The specification was also developed with input from standards bodies that work in related areas.
“During 2007, we talked to a number of standards organizations to try to find out whether we should do this,” said Paul Warndorf, Technology Vice President at AMT. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Organization for Machine Automation and Control (OMAC), and the OPC Foundation were involved in the development, he said.
Now that the first phase of development is completed, committees are expanding their efforts. “Creating tag names will be a lot of our work going forward. We have around 40 tags done,” Hibbard said.