Future View: Machine Tools 2020 (Part 1)

As IMTS 2014 draws near, many of us are looking forward to all the new machine tool technology we’ll get to see. One of our most experienced engineers, Ted Driggs, has attended 15 IMTS shows during the course of his career. In his 41 years in manufacturing, Ted has pretty much played all the positions in our industry, from machine operator to applications engineering and everything in between. He has been a Certified Manufacturing Engineer for nearly 30 years. In preparation for IMTS, we wanted to get his insights about “what’s the future of machine tool technology?” We soon discovered we could fill a book with his thoughts on this subject! Following are some excerpts from our “exclusive” interview with Ted, in Part 1 of a two-part series.

So Ted, how did the whole machine tool industry get started?
There’s an axiom which states “necessity is the mother of invention.” Man has always overcome the bonds of earth which confine him! During the Neanderthal era, human beings needed to move things. So the wheel was invented. Later man wanted to move things faster. For this, man harnessed the use of animal power. Then we replaced the animal with vehicles, which were exponentially faster and more efficient. Today we travel beyond the speed of sound to Mach 22 (that’s 17,500 mph). Along the way, we learned we needed machines to build these vehicles (and a lot of other things), and an industry was born.

How are machine tools evolving over time?
Machine tool construction designs have evolved from very simple tools to machines that produce shoe lasts for shoemaking, armament for protection, and the first airfoils for the Air Force…to today’s modern times. The needs of history necessitated that a machine tool do tasks man cannot. Chisels, hammers, saws and files are about the limit of human ability. This fact, combined with the complexity of each historical era, dictates how much the machine tool must change to fit the requirements of humanity. All of this has been the precursor for what we see as the machine tool profile of the future. Through a 20-20 vision of the past to the present, we can envision what the future of the year 2020 may hold.

Where are we headed with machine tool structure?
Machine tools have been designed to be structurally stronger than man, and as agile as possible – to mimic man’s basic senses and flexibility. The structure is the easy part. Many materials have been tried and some work better than others. From natural organic materials to man-made, the machine base and other members have been set in cast iron for a long time. Design improvements to the way cast iron alloys are strengthened and machined are at the point where we have now reached the threshold of diminishing returns. This means that the base material elements are mature to where further design changes will not significantly improve a machine tool with relevant results.

What about some of the other machine components?
Ball screw and moving contact elements (such as machine slide systems and drive systems) have also seen many improvements over the last 75 years. Speed, frictional losses, lost motion relative to axis reversals all have been improved and we have made a more accurate machine tool as a result. Here too, the designs of today are reaching the mechanical limits of material physics and science. In other words the various mechanical elements that comprise a modern, state of the art machine tool have reached a plateau similar to that for the base element castings. Unless some new alloy, method to reduce frictional and lost motion or other individual machine tool element is newly discovered, machine tool development will not grow at a fast rate.

What does this mean for our industry?
I estimate that the modern CNC/INC machine tool is now 85-90% mature from the mechanical side. As such, the quickest advancements with the highest ROI will not come from here, but in the area of machine tool sensory systems!

If this is true, then what’s your 20-20 vision of the year 2020?
Remember, we stated earlier that we needed to replace man’s brawn with a machine, but we want it as agile as possible, replacing man’s basic senses. This is where we’re headed at Okuma. We’re building progressively intelligent machines using the best technology for the mature elements that the mechanical side gives us, combined with sensing and adjusting for how these finite elements react in the harsh environments of manufacturing:

  • How about a system that monitors the cast iron elements of a machine and predicts how it reacts, from heat-up to cool-down, during the manufacturing day and automatically adjusts the machine positioning for higher accuracy machining? (TAS-S and TAS-C)
  • What about understanding vibration propagation and making the machine tune it out through calculating higher production cutting data? (Machining Navi)
  • What about evaluating the machines servo drive signature while under certain loads and automatically tuning the machine to be more accurate? (SERVONAVI)
  • And many more

Historically a man would handle all of the situations described above by using his/her talents of analyzing and adjusting. Today, mimicking a man’s agility and know-how is now becoming more evident in machine tool design. The idea is to make the machine tool have man’s acute sensory capabilities, with the strength of a mechanical beast.

But there’s more to the story. We left out one last important part to the 20-20 vision of 2020 machine tools…

[Read the conclusion of this interview: Part 2 posted Wednesday August 27.]

Ted Driggs is Project Manager, Okuma America Corporation.

We’d love to hear your opinion, where is all this technology evolution taking us? Please comment below and share your thoughts.

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