MTConnect, the open-source networking protocol for machine connectivity, has gained traction over the years, sponsoring competitions and gaining high-profile supporters. Similarly, mobile devices have begun creeping into the hands of shop-floor managers, who use the devices to monitor production processes and personnel. Are these converging technologies just hip new playthings, or are they here to stay as harbingers of the future of industry?
With support from AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology, MTConnect was developed as an open, royalty-free set of standards to increase connectivity and interoperability between machine tools. Using Internet protocol and .xml, designers have been able to create a series of standards by which shops can network machines from different brands. The standards facilitate monitoring and maintenance capabilities, ensuring shop managers can maintain safe and efficient operation on the shop floor.
A Culture of Early Adoption
Plymouth, Ind.-based manufacturer Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies (ITAMCO) has embraced new technologies, like MTConnect, as a fundamental part of its business model. Although the company’s primary business is contract manufacturing of large machine components for mining and oil and gas, the company employs in-house designers and software engineers that design apps for internal use. When these apps show promise externally, ITAMCO has released them for public use on iOS, Android, and other mobile-device operating systems. As Joel Neidig, ITAMCO technology manager, recently told IMT Machining Journal, releasing the apps helps the company expand its outreach to a global scale.
Recently, ITAMCO has explored the new Google Glass format, which combines the power of wearable technology and the interoperability and ease-of-use of Google Glass (which is being simply referred to as Glass). Neidig talked to IMT Machining Journal about ITAMCO’s opinions on cutting-edge technology and the possibilities of wearable technology in manufacturing.
Neidig explained that ITAMCO is run by management geared towards early adoption. Everyone has to adopt the latest tech, and that extends to the shop floor. At both of ITAMCO’s Indiana plants, in the cities of Plymouth and Argos, every single employee is issued a company mobile device such as an iPhone or BlackBerry.
Employees use these devices for “everything,” as Neidig says: monitoring machines, time, attendance, payroll, quality control, and e-mail and communication. All of the mobile devices are connected to a central database that aggregates the information entered by the employees. Neidig noted that the handheld devices are cheaper to manage than desktop computers, and the mobility and quick access help employees in large factory settings.
Optimizing Process with MTConnect
ITAMCO adopted MTConnect early. With a host of different machine tools on its factory floors, the company was actively pursuing a method of better integrating and monitoring its production processes, and the solution could not be proprietary. “I saw [MTConnect] at IMTS [in 2008] and said, ‘We have to get on this,’” Neidig said. “MTConnect gave us that open-source, royalty-free protocol.”
ITAMCO became a part of the MTConnect Technology Advisory Group (TAG), and made its iOS- and Android-based MTConnect apps open source.
“We really think MTConnect is the future of how the industry will communicate with its devices,” Neidig said. “We have over 60 machines connected on MTConnect, and we’re generally phasing in all 200 machines. We’re also monitoring energy in both our factories. We can control thermostats. It’s a big game-changer. Even though it’s been out five years, it’s just now getting heavy acceptance.”
Becoming a Google Glass Explorer
With this culture of using cutting-edge technology to optimize processes with personnel and machines, it’s not surprising that ITAMCO became one of the initial Glass Explorers, a select group of software developers allowed to purchase Google Glass in order to develop applications for it. Neidig explained that the company’s positive experience with handheld devices has led them to believe wearable technology like Glass is the future.
“The direction of computers is that they’re just getting more and more user-friendly,” he said. “And when you get into mobile devices, they’re even more user-friendly than a PC. When you get into wearable technology, you’re not even using your hands.”
When ITAMCO decided to develop software for Glass, they took a risk, but Neidig thinks they are betting smart. “We see it as something that’s going to be really huge,” he said. “Where is it going? We don’t know, but it’s a developing process.”
Glass projects a screen that appears to be 25 inches and a few feet away from the user’s right eye (left-eye-dominant folks are out of luck for now). The user has two options: they can use the native operating system in Glass to search Google or find weather updates, or — more important — they can access applications in the cloud. Alternatively, users can upload Android into their Glasses and use this more-complete operating system from their eye, though functionally it is significantly decreased without a keyboard.
Using Google Glass on the Shopfloor
With ITAMCO’s app, Google Glass + MTConnect, the monitoring and management capabilities of MTConnect is available in the user’s eye. A picture can help explain how it works.
The photo at left shows an area of the ITAMCO factory with a large Niles machine tool as seen from Glass. Overlaid is a grayed-out rectangle with machine-tool information. If the user moves his or her eye, or operates a touchscreen toggle on the right arm of Glass, the information display can change to reveal additional information or upload it to the ITAMCO network on the cloud.
Further, the Google Glass + MTConnect app can perform machine recognition. With the machine saved in a database, Glass can identify the machine and pull up relevant MTConnect data automatically.
Using Glass to Look Ahead
ITAMCO will be demonstrating their Google Glass software at the upcoming MTConnect conference, as well as entering the MTConnect Challenge (Phase 2). Neidig reiterated ITAMCO’s intention of keeping the app open source and royalty-free.
“This will help the industry gain more acceptance of MTConnect, which drives down our cost,” Neidig explained, referring to its development by others. “Where we save our money is when we buy our machine tools and they have MTConnect on them and it’s already integrated. [We’re] trying to make more companies get involved in MTConnect.”
And the combination of the MTConnect protocol and wearable technology? Neidig is confident that it will continue to grow: “We’ll be developing apps for whatever device comes out.”
Are you excited about Google Glass and other wearable technologies in manufacturing? Do you already use portable devices on the job? Tell us in the comments below.