Using digital machining, companies can turn a digital design into an object with the click of a mouse. An EU-funded project has come up with a new and innovative way to do this, bringing the technology within reach of smaller companies with limited budgets.
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The EU-funded CAPP-4-SMEs project goes beyond what competitors in China and the United States are doing in the sphere of cloud manufacturing — a set-up enabling universal, convenient, on-demand access to a shared pool of manufacturing resources (such as software tools, equipment and capabilities).
CAPP-4-SMEs brings together business planning and product design with an innovative method of machining — the process of cutting a raw material into a shape. It promises to be a winning formula. At the heart of CAPP-4-SMEs is Cloud-based Distributed Process Planning (Cloud-DPP) – an online planning system that collects real-time information on the availability of machines, available cutters and tools, as well as guidance on design.
This formula is especially useful for smaller companies since they can go into business with other firms to bring in specialised skills that they do not have in-house. During busy periods the company can find extra support, while in quiet periods it can outsource its own resources, such as machines, robots and monitors. Cloud services can also be used immediately – there is no waiting while equipment is installed.
The project’s lead coordinator, Lihui Wang of Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, explains how one small or medium-sized enterprise (SME), for example, may be a consultant in product design and process planning. Another SME — in a different country — may own a small machine shop. Cloud manufacturing brings them together, fostering new product innovation.
Teaming academics and enterprise, CAPP-4-SMEs’ platform is expected to sharpen the competitive edge of SMEs, giving them a chance to grow and create more jobs.
A revolution in machining
The inclusion of an innovative form of machining is vital to the success of cloud manufacturing, says Wang. CAPP-4-SMEs is pioneering this new approach to machining, laying the ground for a change in how this process is carried out.
Today, the programming language used by industry to tell a machine to perform a function, such as cutting, is known as the G-code. But this lacks flexibility; it cannot issue alternative instructions if, for example, the required tools are unavailable.
“Information from networked machines on availability and conditions — as well as that from the cutters and fixtures on the machines — is collected in real time, through a ‘cloud’ for decision-making so that the machines can adapt to last minute changes,” says Wang.
Wang foresees a ‘pay-as-you-go’ system to access the services of CAPP-4-SMEs online.
To maximise the project’s impact, the researchers plan to extend its scope to a broader range of manufacturing during the remainder of the project, which ends in November 2015. This includes 3D printing – the creation of three-dimensional objects from a digital file – and the assembly of components in the aerospace and automotive sectors.
To demonstrate the system, the project plans to produce three test parts of varying complexity — two of which have already been machined to specific designs — on the shop floors of the project’s industrial partners from January 2015.
CAPP-4-SMEs is expected to act as beacon to draw more Europeans into this new, attractive, manufacturing sector where the sky’s the limit, says Wang.