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The challenge of multi-function machines

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The uptake of multi-function machines is growing as more companies realise it is possible to consolidate machine and tooling set-ups as well as combine multiple manufacturing steps into a single machine with a single set-up.

Effectively, a company set-up with this type of equipment can generate a synchronised computer numerical control (CNC) program for a machine that performs milling and turning from either of two or more turrets on either of two lathe spindles that can also be programmed like milling rotary tables.

However, the benefits of operating multi-function machines come with challenges. Such machines normally have seven or more programmable axes operating within a limited work envelope, and machine components often pass very close to one another.

This prompts CNC tape prove-outs with numerous change outs to alleviate the situation.

Furthermore, the most desirable scenario is to have multiple cutting tools working simultaneously to maximise benefits, yet this synchronised cutting is even more challenging considering cutting tools often reach more than one part/spindle at a time, and keeping track of the in-process workpiece between cutting operations can be tedious.

NX specialist at plm (Product Lifecycle Management Australasia), Paul Hartrick, says technology advancements such as those embodied by NX CAM have mitigated many costly risks during multifunction machining and associated CNC programming.

"What is being achieved is actually a blend of automation and programmer control," said Mr Hartrick.

"This translates into better utilisation of multifunction machines with lowered set-up costs and improved productivity.

"When fully utilised, the Synchronisation Manager in NX CAM allows exact and very detailed examination of all the programmable axes' motion.

"Even with multiple machine components moving simultaneously, all areas of machine travel that might be of concern in a more manual operation can be carefully examined before even getting to the actual machine on the shop floor."

Using a program like NX to 'prove out' the CNC programs and sampling several synchronisation approaches before actually going out and tying up the machine and machinist's time is the backbone behind the enormous cost saving.

By electronically proving out the synchronisation with NX, even it was only to obsolete the need for four of the eight prove-out cycles, normally equates to significant cost savings.

With the NX Synchronisation Manager, the programmer of the multifunction machine can insert synchronisation events and/or dwell events.

Once inserted, these events can then be moved using normal drag-and-drop technology. From the same manager, the user can also display the CNC program's posted G-code and from that display can more specifically place the inserted events.

"This is a key point of this type of new software technology," said Mr Hartrick. "At any point, the user can step through or play the simulation to see where the various multifunction machine components are going to be at any given time in the CNC program and make necessary adjustments to optimise the machine utilisation.

"All changes made within the Synchronisation Manager become part of the database and are saved within the NX part file.

"At any time later, the same NX part file can be re-opened and all of the synchronisation information will still be there. Along with the synchronisation information, the post mapping will also be stored within the part file."

But the practical benefits extend even further. Tracking a workpiece that is in progress is an important element of multifunction machining - particularly after an initial lathe operation that removes a substantial amount of material.

It is at this point when the next cavity mill operation needs to be aware of the resultant shape so that the cutter path will make fewer cuts.

"Effectively, NX is emulating exactly what the operator is seeing on his/her actual multifunction machine at run time," said Mr Hartrick.

"It extends so far down the job that during post processing, an association of any of the individual posts with a specific machining method is possible simply by having the operator place a machining operation within the correct method using the NX 'operation navigator' display, and the system takes care of the rest."

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