Drives and Controls Magazine
Software bridge links robots and machine tools
Published:  25 June, 2013

Researchers in the US have demonstrated an open-source software technology that collects and communicates real-time information from manufacturing processes and factory-floor equipment supplied by a variety of vendors.

In the test, conducted by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a robot was used to load and unload parts to and from a lathe, precisely when the machine tool was ready to accept them.

They achieved this using MTConnect – an open-source standard that collects and communicates real-time information from manufacturing processes and integrates factory equipment from different vendors. Without MTConnect, they say, such a synchronised interaction would have required many hours, or days, of programming.

In their tests, the NIST researchers used MTConnect in conjunction with ROS-Industrial, a protocol that has evolved from an open-source robot operating system (ROS), originally devised by researchers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who developed it to link research robots, as well as add-ons such as sensors or grippers. A consortium led by the Southwest Research Institute is now extending ROS to industrial robots and hardening its use for manufacturing.

NIST tested a “generic bridge” that converts data and messages written in MTConnect and ROS-Industrial into a form that both can understand. This link eliminates the need to convert computer codes to get robots and machine tools from different vendors to interact. It uses a mutually understood “wrapper” to carry the messages.

“The goal of this project and follow-up efforts is to make it as easy as possible to integrate factory robots and machine tools and also to reconfigure them in response to changes in orders or customer requirements,” explains Fred Proctor, leader of NIST’s Smart Manufacturing and Construction Control Systems programme.

“The communications logjam between robots and machine tools made by different vendors might be surprising to users of everyday electronics and communication equipment,” he adds. “Thanks to widely-used standards, smartphones, computers, printers, and a variety of other products have almost effortless plug-and-play interoperability. This is not the case for equipment used in manufacturing operations, where operating systems and specifications for communication often are proprietary,” Proctor explains.

The “meet-me-in-the-middle” approach for MTConnect and ROS-Industrial “appears to be a practical solution to the proprietary-systems hurdle,” he adds.

“This is a giant step forward in resolving manufacturing interoperability issues,” says Douglas Woods, president of the Association For Manufacturing Technology (AMT), which is sponsoring the development of MTConnect. “Seamless communications among disparate pieces of manufacturing technology equipment and devices is imperative to access data which ultimately drives analytics and opens the door for productivity enhancements.”

NIST and its collaborators – led by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining – are now exploring options for testing the bridge in a real factory.