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Open-systems CNCs increase manufacturing flexibility

Open-systems CNCs increase manufacturing flexibility

Manufacturers don't think in terms of open systems or proprietary systems when it comes to machine tools and factory automation, says Fall. They instead are looking for solutions to real problems on the factory floor, and they want the solution that best leverages their engineering talent.

Design News: Your software, OpenCNC(R), is an open-architecture, unbundled software CNC. Why is open architecture better than proprietary architecture for CNC?

Fall: MDSI didn't start out intending to develop an open-architecture CNC. But, as we researched the problems our target customers were trying to solve, we heard them say they needed more control over what they put on their machines. Their life cycle costs were high. Users couldn't afford to have as many NC machines as they wanted. The cost of maintenance for proprietary systems is high. We asked ourselves how we could lower life-cycle costs. We knew that the value of systems is in the software, not the box, and that open-architecture software was the key to giving customers the most flexibility and helping them lower costs. Years ago, some CAD companies sold computers and gave away the software, but that changed because of the higher relative value of the software. That same evolution is taking place on the factory floor too.

Q: Are there any applications that are best as proprietary?

A: It comes down to an issue of preference, not requirements. IBM still builds lots of mainframes even though that portion of the market is smaller than before. There's a place for supercomputers too, though it's dwindling.

Q: Do customers think in terms of open systems or proprietary systems?

A: Neither. They think of the problems they have on the factory floor. They don't buy "open systems," they buy solutions to their problems.

Q: What kind of support do customers need with open systems?

A: Every customer is different. One kind of customer wants to do everything himself. He'll buy the hardware and software from different vendors and contract for the training. Another kind of customer will want a total turnkey system, and will buy from a single source such as a new class of integrators. And, then there are the customers who want a mix of services from a variety of vendors and locations. So, to satisfy those different needs and wants, vendors have developed a broad range of services and delivery organizations.

Q: How big is the CNC market?

A: The machine control world market is over $12 billion and consists of three groups: programmable logic controllers; general motion controls, characterized by relatively simple, single-axis motion control; and computer numerical controls (CNC), which embody complex motion-control applications that involve simultaneous, high-speed, multi-axis machining. The CNC market is $3.3 billion worldwide.

Q: What are the financial benefits of a software CNC?

A: Among the benefits Open-CNC is providing are savings of up to 50% on the cost of retrofitting old machine tools; savings of ten to one on retrofitting with OpenCNC vs buying new machine tools; increased return on manufacturing assets, in one case, of up to 60% from standardizing on OpenCNC plant-wide; two-thirds reduction in maintenance costs; and part cycle time reductions of as much as 50%.

Q: How does OpenCNC make adoption of new technology easier?

A: To acquire new technology with proprietary CNCs, you usually have to tear a machine tool down, replace servos and electronics, and install new controls. It's an all-or-nothing approach. Because OpenCNC is all software, customers don't replace motors and drives until they need to. They can incrementally upgrade hardware and software technology on the CNC. They just load the new version of the software, or add more memory or a faster processor to their PC. Using a software approach, they can keep all machine tools running while they upgrade some but not others.


Fall has over 20 years experience in operations management and marketing in manufacturing and high-tech companies. With MDSI since 1995, he has, among other accomplishments, entered an alliance with EDS to offer MDSI's factory-floor CNC management software to companies worldwide, and worked with Microsoft to establish OpenCNC for Microsoft Windows NT(R). Prior to joining MDSI, he was with software companies Point Control and Applicon, and was a plant manager with General Devices. He began his career at Emerson Electric Co.

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