Megan Ray Nichols

Thanks to digital technologies, the machining industry stands ready for positive and productive disruptions. In fact, every industrial sector stands to gain from the accumulation of process data and the ability to render real-world objects in incredible detail within digital systems.

Machine shops, factories, milling, and CNC machines are beginning to look and work differently thanks to digitization. Here’s a look at the forms this concept takes in the field and why it’s leading the change in how we work, conceive and execute new product designs.

Digital Twins for Inventory Management and Product Design

Computer numerical control (CNC) is not a new concept in the machining sector — it’s been a vital asset for years. It allows machinists to create unique designs or refine old ones in a digital workspace and then seamlessly export it to the router, milling machine or another tool.

True digitization carries this concept several steps forward. Thanks to a concept called digital twins, the machining and manufacturing sectors are getting closer to a future where inventories can be entirely digital rather than physical.

A digital twin uses 3D graphical modeling software, real-time data and even augmented and virtual realities to build a functional digital model of a product, asset or system. Digital twin software is capable of rendering something as simple as a paperweight or complex as a combustion engine.

The point is, this technology acts as a bridge between the digital and physical realms and unlocks a host of functionality that’s useful in machining, such as:

  • A playground where machinists can implement changes safely and gather data on how the system’s performance or integrity changes.
  • Less physical inventory. Instead, OEMs, factories and machine shops will keep libraries of product designs at the ready. They’ll send them to production only when there’s a demand for it, or when customizations are required.
  • Virtual replicas of the physical environment in which workers will use digital twins. These replicas help designers anticipate problems in the real world before they happen. They also envision the product lifecycle to see how well it holds up to standard and unusual sources of stress.

As 3D printers make their way into more machine shops, digital twins will become necessary. 3D printers can receive design and process data and rapidly prototype multiple iterations of a product, opening up physical and digital testing.

Digitization and Predictive Maintenance

Digitization primarily means collecting data on a larger scale than before. Much of this information comes from sensors embedded in the physical assets factories and machine shops rely on, like material handling equipment, lathes, CNC machines, cutting tools and more.

Data from these sensors provide a host of information about that machine’s operation and condition, including any out-of-spec readings like unusual temperatures or vibrations. In this way, digitization offers a virtual representation of every process from beginning to end — including real-time information on any emerging issues that could lead to equipment failure or compromised quality of the workpiece.

The concept of the digital twin isn’t merely good for product design and manufacturing. It also applies to the task of keeping production machines operational. Similar to the product design process, where machinists refine their concepts in the digital space, machine shops can create digital twins of their manufacturing equipment. They can study processes in real-time to detect malfunctions or find and address bottlenecks and other productivity problems.

New Industrial Quality Standards

The Digital Metrology Standards Consortium (DMSC), founded in 2006, fills in what’s described as an urgent need for industry-wide digital quality control standards. In 2019, DMSC released the third version of QIF (QIF 3.0) — an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and future ISO standard devoted to dimensional metrology.

Dimensional metrology is the process whereby professionals calibrate measuring and production equipment to detect the physical size of an object or distances between one component and the next.

QIF provides six application areas that make the exchange of this digital information seamless and much more accurate — QIF Rules, QIF Model-Based Definition, QIF Plans, QIF Resources, QIF Results and QIF Statistics. Today, machine shops can use MTConnect and ISO AP242 to interface with QIF.

As an example of how this is useful, QIF Plans can be used to embed product manufacturing information (PMI), including detailed directions for every machine, regardless of make or model required to create it, directly into a CAD model.

Another example is QIF Rules, which harnesses the available process and product data to create standardized digital templates for measurements and best practices for inspections. Some manufacturing processes stand by physical templates because they can be used to capture and retaintraceability information. New digital standards like QIF will further improve the accuracy and transparency of manufacturing practices and make templates easier to use.

Digitization for a More Productive Machining Industry

For production processes that require multiple steps and machines — or collaboration between partners — digitization tools like proactive maintenance, digital twins and QIF standards keep everybody on the same page.

To put it another way, these and other digital quality assurance standards merge process data with product and manufacturing data. Nothing gets lost in translation across machine shops, and workers can open product models in a variety of visualization and testing programs with all procedural data intact. The result is an industry that’s more productive, less wasteful and far more collaborative than it is today.