Collaboration Network Solves Problems in Shop-Floor Integration

Okuma America Corp. makes lathes, machining centers, and grinders. But when a customer comes to the company with problems, the best solution isn’t always just buying more heavy metal. That’s why, in 2007, the American subsidiary of Okuma, a machine tool manufacturer based in Japan, formed Partners in THINC, a collaboration network of 40-plus companies serving the metalcutting and manufacturing industry.

Jeff Estes, director of the Partners in THINC program at Okuma America, explained how the company uses the collaboration network to help solve customers’ problems. “Company X might come in and tell us, ‘I’m making this family of parts using such-and-such technology,” he told ThomasNet News in an interview. “‘I need to lower my cost and increase my throughput.’ We sit down and start asking questions: ‘How are you doing it now, what are your goals, what are the challenges you face?’

“We find that, often, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the aerospace or medical or energy-related business, or even just the job shop down the street,” Estes said. “The problems are very similar.”

That means that the solutions coming out of Partners in THINC often have wider implications and markets far beyond the companies that are bringing the problems to the table. “We’ll sit down with them and list their eight or 10 challenges and find that they really go across all industries,” Estes noted. “That’s what’s so amazing.”

The Partners in THINC network provides Okuma and its customers with a pool of capabilities far beyond the machine tool builder’s own internal expertise. “At that point, we start talking with them about partners who could help, maybe some additional machine tools that could help them, or some new technologies that could meet their challenges,” Estes said. “Then we bring those partners in to talk with them one-on-one.”

At the center of Okuma’s collaboration network is the company’s THINC (THe Intelligent Numerical Control) system, a Microsoft Windows-based platform used with the company’s lathes and machining centers, which will be expanded to its grinders soon. The THINC-OSP-P300 is the current version of Okuma’s CNC control.

In 2004, Okuma began migrating its CNC control from a proprietary system to an open PC-based architecture. Okuma’s rationale was that an open system would enable greater interoperability and easier customization and upgrades.

Windows architecture allows the owner to swap in new parts more easily — for example, by upgrading the processor or installing off-the-shelf memory upgrades. Using a PC-compatible motherboard allows easier integration and standard communications through Ethernet and USB ports.

According to background materials from the company, THINC enables access to “almost any application and peripheral, including factory management systems, and interfaces with bar readers, barfeeders, robots, probes, and tool setters,” as well as online documentation and Internet resources.

Okuma believes that its move to open architecture constitutes a breakthrough in CNC control. The company describes conventional CNC machine capability as “frozen in time and obsolete the day the customer takes delivery.” Conventional CNC implementation limits growth, the company asserts, whereas “an open and fluid platform allows the end user to take advantage of new capabilities as they become available from various sources, without a costly CNC control overhaul.” This more open and fluid technology approach has driven Okuma to develop the network of expertise embodied in the Partners in THINC network.

Okuma announced recently that Memex Automation, headquartered in Burlington, Ont., Canada, joined the Partners in THINC network to contribute its expertise in shop-floor productivity. Memex is the maker of the MERLIN OEE Manufacturing Execution System.

“Okuma’s solutions are the machines themselves,” said John Rattray, vice president for sales and marketing at Memex Automation, explaining to ThomasNet News how his company’s expertise fits into the Partners in THINC program. “They do the machining process, but we provide the communications platform to tie the machine into the network — ‘shop floor to top floor’ is the way we put it.”

Rattray said that Memex is focusing on what it calls the “last-meter” problem in manufacturing. Bridging the gap between machine and network gives the organization real-time visibility into machine operation, which allows it to track overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and other metrics.

However, Okuma recognizes that its different partners have distinct capabilities, so it admits competing companies into its collaboration network. For example, the network includes not only Memex Automation but also 5ME, Predator, and dataZen, all of whom swim in the same pond as Memex Automation by offering shop-floor productivity solutions.

“We tell the customer, ‘We’ve worked with all of these and know them very well,’” said Estes. “‘They’re all highly qualified and reliable. But you need to make the choice as to which one is the best fit for you. No matter who you use, we know you’re going to get tremendous benefits.’”

In some cases, Okuma recognizes that it will just end up making a referral to one of its partners, without immediately picking up any business for itself. However, in the long run, making a sound referral helps position Okuma as an expert and thought-leader. “Eventually, they will need a machine tool, and they will likely come back to us,” Estes said.

Even beyond referrals, though, the Partners in THINC group is functioning as an innovation collaborative. “We’ve collaborated over the past several years with our partners on new products and technologies, and we have partners who are working with each other to develop new technologies as well,” Estes stressed.

The network greatly expands Okuma’s pool of talent. “Each one of our 40 partners has its own engineering staff,” said Estes. “So instead of the 50 or 60 engineers inside Okuma and maybe another 200 across our distributor base, we have 4,000 or more through our partners.”

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