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Engineering News 7425

DN Staff

January 23, 1995

20 Min Read
Engineering News

PCs come to numerical control

CNC manufacturers around the world are turning to PCs to offer customers flexibility and ease of use

Tokyo, Japan -- Several large Japanese, American, and European manufacturers of CNC equipment have announced new products based on the IBM PC. In an industry dominated by proprietary, incompatible control systems, these introductions provide official (though perhaps belated) recognition of a new age in numerical control: one in which the PC and the CNC become inseparable.

Once the domain of tiny start-ups such as Delta Tau Data Systems (Northridge, CA), PC-based NC has spread to such powerhouses as Fanuc (and US-based GE Fanuc), Mitsubishi Electric Industrial Controls, Cincinnati Milacron, Siemens, Fadal, NUM, Karatsu Iron Works, IBM Japan, and others. According to Mitsubishi, roughly 60 PC-based systems appeared at the IMTS show last fall in Chicago.

What's driving the trend? Flexibility, capability, cost, and customers. PCs allow users to develop custom front ends, run familiar CAM programs, and get away from cumbersome codes. "We recognize that PCs are the wave of the future," says Henry Glick, national sales manager at Mitsubishi.

Choosing a solution. Two distinct approaches have appeared: Plug a motion-control card into a PC slot to transform the computer into a CNC; or, use a PC as a front end to a conventional CNC. In the latter case, engineers either build the two into the same housing or join them with a network.

Each approach has its advantages. The first rides the wave of ever cheaper and more powerful PCs, making cost almost irrelevant.

The second solution separates the PC from the CNC. Proponents claim this insulates expensive CNC hardware from unnecessary changes provoked by the endless evolution of PC hardware and operating systems.

An example of the former is Mitsubishi's (Mt. Prospect, IL) MELDASMAGIC. Available in the first quarter, MELDASMAGIC is a full-function, four-axis CNC motion-control card that plugs into a standard PC ISA slot. The PC allows users to run familiar CAD/CAM software packages such as Virtual Gibbs from Gibbs & Associates (Moorpark, CA), SmartCAM from Point Control, (Eugene, OR), or SURFCAM from Surfware (San Fernando, CA). Background programming can occur while the card is running.

Most importantly, the card's performance isn't tied to the speed of the PC processor. But for proper screen updates, the company recommends at least a 486-class computer. "This PC/card combination has the same capabilities as our other CNC controls, and you can run any front-end program you want," says Glick.

Karatsu Iron Works (Tokyo, Japan) is also offering an add-in board and software for four-axis control. The board sells in Japan for the equivalent of $1,200 and the software for $330, and is being used by industrial and agricultural equipment makers. Currently, Karatsu's board and software run only on Japanese NEC PC 98 series computers. A DOS version is under development.

Other players include Delta Tau with its new PMAC (programmable multiaxis controller) board for Windows. It's essentially a PC equipped with control card, dual-port RAM board, and proprietary software. And, Cincinnati Milacron quietly unwrapped its Acramatic 2100, a Windows NT-based CNC.

Alternative approach. Engineers at GE Fanuc (Charlottesville, VA) feel PCs aren't ready to take on CNC work full time. "I see the risk as the need to continually upgrade your system to keep up with evolving PC technology," says John Turner, manager of CNC product marketing at GE Fanuc.

The company offers two alternatives to the CNC-on-a-card solution. One is MMC-IV, the Machine Management Control workstation. It consists of a single-board PC embedded in a common backplane bus with a conventional GE Fanuc CNC.

A second product, unveiled at IMTS, is Open System CNC. With Open System, a high-speed cable connects a communications card in the PC to one in the CNC. A hybrid solution, it maintains the user's familiar numerical controllers but provides a means to communicate with them via PC.

IBM Japan (Tokyo), has taken a somewhat different tack by basing its Integrated & Flexible Controller (IFC) on a modified version of a new real-time operating system developed at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Combined with a package of software drivers, it can control such things as a robot, screw feeder, conveyor, and bar-code reader for a machinery assembly cell or food processing line. The basic system uses a 486DX CPU with 4M Bytes RAM and a 170M Byte hard disk. With optional boards, the system offers the added capabilities of four-axis machine control and networking connections. IBM Japan touts the system's low cost.

World governments have a piece of the action as well. In Europe, the OSACA program (Open System Architecture for Control within Automation) combines machine-tool builders, CNC vendors, and universities. Participants include Siemens, Bosch, NUM, ATEC, Fagor, Index, Huron, and others.

  • Cheaper CNC

  • Integration with existing CAD/CAM programs

  • Simpler NC programming

In the U.S., the Air Force was scheduled to announce winners of an $8-million grant in its NGC (next generation controller) program. Both programs aspire for an open-architecture, generic, modular CNC standard. The PC may prove an essential component.

As an interesting alternative, researchers at Sandia National Laboratory have begun working with a company on an all-software solution. The still-proprietary method "would completely eliminate third-party motion-control boards," according to a laboratory spokesman.

Whatever the solution, it's clear that PCs and numerical controls will soon become fast friends. "We have no choice," says Glick. "Customers are demanding that capability."

-Mark A. Gottschalk, Western Technical Editor,
with Dennis Normile in Japan


PCMCIA revises PC Card design

Sunnyvale, CA--The Personal Computer Memory Card International Assoc. (PCMCIA) has recently unveiled a unified PC Card(TM) Standard. Compiled in a joint effort with the Japan Electronic Industry Development Assoc. (JEIDA), the new standard incorporates many technical enhancements designed to broaden the market for PC Card technology.

"We've witnessed a rapid proliferation of smaller, more mobile communications devices," says Stephen Harper, PCMCIA president and chairman. "This new standard addresses the most significant and timely technical issues in our industry."

The new criteria include:

  • Support for multiple function I/O cards. Manufacturers can now house several applications on one card, such as sound and data/FAX capabilities.

  • Low voltage support for 3.3V cards. This allows PC Card products to use energy more efficiently in laptops and hand-held PDAs, while also supporting future low-power initiatives.

  • Direct memory access (DMA) capability built-in. Products such as sound cards, network adaptors, and others can be designed without the developer having to emulate DMA in software.

  • A wide and higher-bandwidth 32-bit bus mastering interface, permitting 132M bytes/sec at 33 MHz. Performance-intensive applications such as 100Mbps Ethernet and full-motion video are now conceivable.

In addition to these benefits, developers must take advantage of new power-management regulations and address compatibility with an expanded Card Information Structure (CIS). This new structure should permit more comprehensive dialog between the card and host computer.


Hard-disk-drive makers agree on standards

Milpitas, CA--Systems designers who want the high performance of serial data-storage interfaces but aren't ready to bet on which will become the next industry standard can use the parallel Ultra SCSI as an interim solution. So say three major hard-disk-drive manufacturers: Quantum Corp., Hewlett-Packard, and Seagate Technology. The three have agreed to back 40M-byte/sec Ultra SCSI as an extension to the established SCSI standards, and are placing their bets on 100M-byte/sec Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop (FC-AL) as the serial interface of the future.

Applications for these standards include storage for mainframes, disk-array subsystems, and enterprise system servers. Drives using the Ultra SCSI standard will be available this quarter.

SCSI standards describe parallel interfaces, but OEMs are finding serial interfaces increasingly attractive. The reasons: simplified connectivity, the ability to hang many more drives on one cable, higher bandwidth, and increased reliability due to dual porting.

Three serial interfaces are contending for computer storage applications: FC-AL, SSA, and P1394 (or Firewire). Quantum's Product Line Manager Jon Toor says the three companies are betting on FC-AL because it offers higher performance and bandwidth. "Also, manufacturers already use it for box-to-box connections."

But adopting any of these interfaces will entail considerable cost and work for systems designers, so some companies will postpone making the decision until there is a clear winner. In the meantime, Ultra SCSI will let designers significantly improve the performance of existing parallel SCSI interfaces without committing to a potentially obsolete serial interface.

By speeding the clock rate, the Ultra SCSI interface can double burst transfer rates in existing drives without changing the physical connector.


Machine saves time in line

Cincinnati, OH--Everyone knows how convenient vending machines can be for cigarettes, drinks, and food. But what about a vending machine for tools? It may sound unusual, but Vertex Technologies, a marketing unit of developer Electronic Merchandising Systems, says the machine has enormous advantages.

Called the Automatic Tool Dispenser (ATD), the machine lets workers get drill bits, inserts, taps, and other perishable machine tooling at the touch of a button. The self-service machine permits each user to access tools in minutes by entering an individual code. The result: An end to long lines at the tool crib. In fact, the company claims that as much as 30 minutes of tool-retrieval time can be saved per machinist, per day.

Another benefit of the ATD: Managers can use data collected by the host computer to continuously monitor usage, inventory levels, and restocking requirements. Analysis of the data could result in more efficient tool acquisition and distribution.

Company officials also say the ATD can be used as an aid to true job costing. Data collected on tool usage can be linked with information such as what job each tool was used for and what cost or profit center each tool was used in. The resulting information can then be used to calculate quantitative factors such as comparative tool performance.

And, when the system is networked with off-site suppliers, direct real-time links can be established to facilitate automated JIT resupply. This would ensure that needed tools are always available and eliminate obsolete tool inventory, says Vertex. The ATD system will automatically update, electronically, levels of inventory, accounting, and all purchasing records.


HP's virtual napkin keeps everyone updated

Palo Alto, CA--Hewlett- Packard brings document conferencing to the desktop with its own introduction to the "whiteboard" revolution. OmniShare allows two users to share CAD drawings, text, and annotations while speaking on the phone. But, unlike many high-end conferencing systems, HP's slim, notebook-sized tablet needs only a standard, analog line.

Users load their documents into the tablet from any PC or via a FAX machine. An image of the document then appears on the tablet's screen. Using an electronic pen, both parties can mark-up the image, together in real-time.

Engineers can flip through several pages of drawings, rotate graphics, or zoom in for a close-up view-all while talking over the same line.

OmniShare is composed of a backlit, monochrome LCD screen/digitizing tablet, a connection unit that houses the computer hardware, and a cordless pen. Users can store up to 500 pages of text, and print to a standard printer. List price is $2,595.


3-D software models retrofit filter

New Port Richey, FL--When engineers at Pall Aeropower Corp. set about retrofitting a turbo-charged military vehicle with an air filter, they knew they wouldn't have much space to work with.

To model the component and fit the self-cleaning Turbodyne II filter to the small envelope of an exis-ting diesel engine, Pall engineers looked to CATIA version 4 design software from Dassault Systemes, Paramus, NJ.

"For complex shapes we'd normally have to build a mock-up physical model," explains project engineer Gerald Tang-Kong. "With CATIA, we tried a couple of configurations first to visualize it, and that saved time." Because the package offers seamless integration with stress and flow-analysis software, CATIA also simplifies the design process, adds Tang-Kong.

3-D software is especially critical for optimizing the design of complex components, says vice president of manufacturing Terry Flack. "3-D means we can extract surface data and check for clearances, wall thicknesses, and the weight of the finished item. An engineer can refine a design and watch it happening."

Pall engineers plan to use the 3-D model data to go directly to a stereolithography prototype of the filter, which will further speed the design process, says Tang-Kong. "Because the assembly will most likely end up in full production, we want to get it right the first time," he adds.

The most recent version of CATIA, Release 1.3, includes modules for sheetmetal design, rough cutting, generative part stress analysis, fitting simulation, and realistic imaging.


Imager lets firefighters see through smoke

Clifton, NJ--Searching for people trapped in a blazing building can create havoc for firefighters-especially when the fire involves dense smoke. But such rescue efforts should become less perilous with the introduction of a tactical accessory from Cairns & Brother.

The CairnsIRIS system consists of a helmet-mounted infrared sensor and a tiltable heads-up, high-resolution display, plus a separate belt-mounted processor. The technology relies on a heat-sensitive miniature ceramic chip (CCD) that reacts to infrared light in the 8-14 micron band. It detects temperature differences as small as 0.5F.

A tiny CRT in the binocular display provides the firefighter with vision in smoke and total darkness. Flipping the display up puts the system into a standby mode to conserve batteries. The firefighter can operate the single on/off switch while wearing heavy protective gloves, according to Joseph P. Kosiarski, Cairns' product manager.

Udel P-1700 polysulfone from Amoco Polymers, Alpharetta, GA, helps protect the heads-up display from excessive heat. The helmet-mounted IR sensor, display, and processor housings consist of Amoco's Radel R-5700 resin. The materials provide a higher temperature capability, as well as outstanding impact strength and chemical resistance, says Cairns Project Engineer Michael Barthold.

The system can also be used for fire-training sessions. With the device, the instructor can "see" students during live fire training. Moreover, faulty circuit breakers will heat up and glow in the IR spectrum, while wall studs can be located to determine the presence of fire breaks inside walls in arson investigations. In addition, industrial plant applications for the technology might include remote inspection of steam lines to detect which ones are hot.


VR system distracts dental patients

Seattle, WA--Going to the dentist wouldn't be so bad if your mind could just be somewhere else. That's the idea behind a new VR product called i-glasses! developed by Virtual I/O.

I-glasses! consist of two 0.7-inch full-color LCDs with 138,000 pixels per panel, mounted into a lightweight head-mounted display. They accept standard NTSC television input and allow patients to watch two- or (someday) three-dimensional programming-or play video games. A pair of built-in stereo headphones provide sound. Patterson Dental, the nation's largest dental supply firm, sees the glasses as a way to entertain anxious patients while helping to sell its intra-oral cameras used for patient education.

Unlike exit-pupil forming systems, such as binoculars, i-glasses! use an energy-window forming system developed under an Army small-business research grant. The optics lie several inches from the eye, accommodate standard eyeglasses, and need no inter-pupilary distance adjustment. They form an 80-inch diagonal image that appears to be 11 feet away. The system isn't immersive; users can see around the periphery of the glasses and, when switched off, see through the front as well.

Out of the dental office, Autodesk and Evans & Sutherland are studying i-glasses! for engineering applications. "It's perfectly 3-D capable," says Linden Rhoads, Virtual I/O's senior VP and co-founder. "CAD companies could offer true stereo 3-D visualization." An optional three-degree-of-freedom motion-tracking sensor provides head-position feedback for VR applications.

The current TV-oriented product lacks a computer monitor's resolution. But a monochrome VGA version appeared at Fall Comdex, and Rhoads expects color VGA units to appear as quickly as LCD manufacturers can create the displays. I-glasses! cost $599 for the base model and $799 for the version with head-tracker and VGA converter.


Lincoln Continental sports wealth of changes

Washington, DC--"Design the best front-wheel-drive car in the world." That was the challenge management handed the engineering team for the '95 Lincoln Continental.

"We're known for technological innovation," boasted Keith C. Magee, general manager for Ford's Lincoln-Mercury division. He is particularly proud of the way designers solved a major problem with torque.

In replacing the 3.8l V-6 engine of last year's Lincoln with a new 4.6l InTech(R) V-8, power perked up 62%. That called for a new front-wheel-drive transaxle able to handle the top torque output of the engine and a significantly higher operating rpm range than before.

To meet the need, the engineering team created the AX4N, a four-speed overdrive transaxle with electronic controls. It has non-synchronous shifting, which not only improves torque demand, but also allows coasting downshifts during urban driving.

The AX4N has an extra friction plate in the forward, direct, and intermediate clutches, with near-net shape differential gears. It also carries a new high-capacity torque converter clutch with a stouter friction element to reduce energy density.

Other transaxle improvements: a balanced piston added to the intermediate clutch, a new Grob spline joint on the overdrive drum and shell, and a set of high-strength pins in the drive chain.

To hush the engine, Ford engineers for the first time inserted a blanket of sound-absorbing fiberglass material in the valley between the fore and aft cylinder banks.

The car's body rests upon a completely redesigned suspension. The system operates with accelerometers, a linear position sensor at each wheel, and fast-acting damper actuators.

An on-board computer figures out the best damping rate and time to change the strut or shock damper between states of firm, normal, or "plush" suspension.

How well did Lincoln designers meet their challenge? Alex Trotman, Ford's chairman and CEO, gave Design News his opinion: "We have a real world-beater on our hands."

--Walter Wingo, Washington Editor


Design brains beat manufacturing brawn

Madison, WI--Rayovac Corp.'s Workhorse(R) line of portable fluorescent lights used to be made overseas. Recently, with advances in design-for-manufacturing and concurrent-engineering techniques, the company assembled what it called the "Off-Shore-No-More" team to redesign the light and test the economic feasibility of building it in the U.S.

As a partner in the venture, Rayovac chose Flambeau Corp., a large custom injection molder and custom assembler with headquarters in Baraboo, WI. The team brought the parts count on the new light from 78 down to 36. It also developed innovative assembly procedures that reduced non-value-added work and lowered the unit cost enough to make domestic manufacture possible.

Martin Wirt, director of product development for Rayovac's Lighting Products Division, praises his manufacturing partner: "The Workhorse 8 is a better light because of the input from Flambeau."

Specific design changes include the handle, which now requires two parts instead of the previous six. Fasteners have been reduced from 11 screws and three rivets to a single screw and no rivets. The inverter circuit board went from 25 parts to 13 and now boasts an inductive feedback feature that boosts light output for a given battery charge.

The lens changed from an extruded part that required cutting and supplemental assembly to a net-shape injection-molded component of Ektar(R) thermoplastic olefin. Bonding the olefin lens to the ABS base required a unique sonic-welding process developed, prototyped, and tested by Flambeau engineers along with Branson Ultrasonics Corp., Danbury, CT.

The light's assembly line uses work cells to minimize parts handling. For example, molding-machine operators print on-off position indicators on the base unit at a station adjacent to the molder instead of sending them to a separate printing station. Lenses move from a molding machine via robotic handlers, then mate with top and base units at ultrasonic welding stations. Workers attach minimal final componentry, package the units, and ship them directly to Rayovac's distribution center.

Workhorse 8's sales have been brisk since the redesign, the companies say, but its production team still meets regularly to lower costs and improve the design further.


American firm snares top Japanese quality award

Mesquite, TX--A division of AT&T has become the first U.S.-based winner of Japan's prestigious Deming Prize for quality control.

AT&T Power Systems, maker of devices that regulate and distribute electrical power, says its Total Quality Management (TQM) system initiated in 1990 slashed development time in half, boosted outgoing-product quality 20-fold, and met customers' re-quested shipping dates 95% of the time. Officials say more than 98% of possible items are recycled.

One key to the program: concurrent engineering, says Jim Wadlington, director of modular power systems. "That has been very effective for us. We have a lot more allegiance to the needs of the factory than most design organizations."

The teamwork goes beyond simply collaborating on product development. Design and manufacturing engineers worked together to develop an extensive set of written guidelines, to ensure that designs can be manufactured efficiently. A typical first complaint from newly hired engineers, he admits: "We're too rigid." However, the company makes sure that engineers develop the guidelines themselves. "It works very well when people are involved in developing the process, not when it comes across as a management directive," he says.

AT&T Power Systems says it combines Japanese-style TQM with respect for the individuality of American workers. Employee suggestions at the division soared from 50 to more than 7,000 per year. The company's devices are incorporated into products ranging from laptop computers to major telephone systems.

The Deming Prize, awarded annually by the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers, honors W. Edwards Deming, an American manufacturing pioneer whose quality-control theories helped Japanese firms rebuild from the ashes of World War II.

One of America's top quality honors, the Baldrige granted by the U.S. Commerce Department, was not awarded in the manufacturing category this year. However, Baldrige service recognition went to another unit of AT&T, its customer long-distance business, along with GTE's Directories Corp. Wainwright Industries, which makes stamped and machined products, earned the small-business award.

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