Put on your human-machine interface

DN Staff

August 20, 2001

7 Min Read
Put on your human-machine interface

Wearable, wireless, and voice-activated HMI is close to reality for the ma-chine tool industry, thanks to a digital readout (DRO) system and linear measurement technology from manufacturer Newall Electronics Inc. (Columbus, OH). The company unveiled its iPRO (Interactive Personal Readout) system during an Eastec 2001 press conference held at the Eastern States Exposition Grounds in West Springfield, MA in May.

Merging its DRO system with a voice-activated, wearable PC, and wireless communications, iPRO is composed of a Xybernaut(R) MA IV PC with a headset that includes display, earphones, and microphone. A voice-activated interface allows handless PC and DRO control using a transmitter to send DRO positional data via a license-free RF link so that the operator can keep hands busy positioning the workpiece, changing the tooling, or setting up jigs and fixtures. "In fact, operators can go from machine to machine with one headset," says Newall President Danny Donaldson, "or even control or monitor machine status from several hundred meters away. Anything you can do with a conventional PC, or our standard DRO, you can do with the iPRO."

Communication between DRO and belt-mount PC transmitters feeds information to the operator's head-mounted display from the DRO's linear scale read heads in the machine via wireless LAN (local area network). Running Windows on a Pentium MMX 233 MHz platform, iPRO uses special optics and a 1.1-inch semi-transparent screen to create a virtual, full-color, 15-inch image (at a distance of 24 inches) that appears to float inches from the wearer's eyes.

Newal Electronics' wireless voic-activated technology allows operators hands-free data access. Special optics and a small, semi-transparent screen create a virtual image that appears to float inches from the eyes.

Admittedly, some operators may be put off by the idea of wearing a PC and headset all day. Hesitant job-shop managers may argue that they can't even get machine operators to use a DRO, much less a PC type device. "But I've got a 10-year old daughter who could operate iPRO because it is a PC, and it is voice operated," says Donaldson.

Newall is committed to the wearable HMI technology because it's confident that iPRO is a concept whose time has come. "With future developments like integrated Blue Tooth(R) technology, along with lighter and smaller wearable PCs, we feel that future products will provide unparalleled safety, convenience, and productivity," Donaldson says.

Integrated environment. The problem, according to Technical Director Mark Hudman, is that the number of parts machined per shift determines operator productivity. So time wasted going to the stock room for materials, getting a drawing out of a file, or looking away from the workpiece to check the display, view a blueprint, or change parameters on the keypad really eats into overall output.

"We wanted a wearable display in plain view of the operator at all times," Hudman explains. "We wanted wireless to disconnect the operator from the machine and provide greater freedom of movement. We wanted voice control to free the operator's hands to tend to machine operation. We went through a very interesting exercise, imagining everything a machine operator does on the job, as we built up a completely integrated environment with the goal of putting all these entities into one focused point that the operator has control over."

By putting all this information in plain view of the operator, iPRO makes PC and DRO control as easy as talking on a cell phone, and information access as simple as glancing into the rearview mirror while driving. The biggest challenge, according to Donaldson, "is presenting all that information in a way that's not overwhelming." That's why the virtual display is fully customizable. "The operator only accesses the information needed for a particular job," Donaldson says. "The virtual head-mounted display is similar to a PC monitor in that the operator can set it up to display various kinds of information on different pop-up screens. Users can tend to machine operation with their hands while using their voice to call up CAD drawings, help guides, or tooling documentation; view speed and feed charts, or images or videos of previous machine setups; check e-mail, access the Internet, or even make phone calls," explains Donaldson.

A machine tool operator merely speaks a keyword to input machine setupt or measurment data and to access various types of data such as CAD drawings and tooling documentation. He or she can also access the Internet and make phone calls.

Myriad uses. iPRO has a number of potential applications in a machine tool setting, from inventory control to the integration of time clock and punch card data into a central database. For example, Donaldson explains, "Take the case of an operator working at a machine that needs 12 inserts for a particular job. All he has to do is say 'tool room' into the microphone, and the tool room inventory pops up in his display. He selects the inserts he needs, and someone pulls them from the tool crib for delivery. Simultaneously, an order goes out to the supplier for more inserts. Once an operator goes through the voice training session, iPRO recognizes the voice upon each login. That information is easily correlated with machine utilization data on a per-job basis, since each lathe, mill, or drill in the shop transmits a unique ID in the header of its information data packet, which contains machine-specific information such as type and number of axes. Correlation of all this data in a central database gives management access to a wireless paper trail of who is working on which job, what machines were used, and for how long.

The wearable HMI could also be set up for instant machine-fault notification. So if an operator is working at one machine and there's a fault on another machine at the other end of the shop, the display provides a fault message. As the operator walks over to the machine with the problem, he calls up that machine to get more specific information, telephones maintenance, and sends an e-mail to inform the manager.

Monitor and record information on tool life. Operators can select the best tooling on a per-job, per-machine basis. For example, one brand of carbide insert might perform better on older machines with more play, explains Donaldson. Another brand might perform better on the newer machines. "The same kind of insert performance information could be recorded and stored for different workpiece materials, alloys, or types of jobs, and operators could have access to all the information for the next job."

While iPRO costs approximately $10,000 and may be too bulky to embed into a pair of safety glasses today, Newall is committed to its future. "You'll see it getting lighter, smaller, and cheaper," says Donaldson. "The pricing may eventually come down to about 1/2 the price of today's model. More features will be added, and it will be something that may someday be embedded into a pair of safety glasses."

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