Protocol Fosters Factory Communication

Think your fab shop is too small or your machines not sophisticated enough for a communications standard that can integrate equipment from multiple suppliers? It so, it might be time to reconsider.


A boring machine at ITAMCO utilizes MTConnect protocol for monitoring the machine. Credit: ITAMCO

The biblical tower of Babel was a structure that housed all of the people of the world who had been condemned to speak different languages, making communication a challenging prospect. In some respects, many manufacturing facilities are akin to that storied structure with their varied machine tools and controls, production and assembly cells, packaging machines, metrology tools and myriad other assorted equipment and accessories found in production environs. Each device babbling away in their own tongues; each with potentially important information that could make the shop floor run more smoothly, more efficiently, perhaps more prosperously.

What that failed tower needed is what today’s shop have available to them. It is a protocol standard to translate disparate native languages into one universally accepted language. In the case of machine tools et al., the protocol is a way to take data outputted by machines in their own proprietary language and convert it to an easy-to-read and understand data stream. This information can be used to monitor equipment, which is the most oft used application, as well as an array of other uses from the somewhat esoteric (a Google Glass app) to the more utilitarian (monitoring power consumption).

The method is called MTConnect, a protocol standard initially developed by the AMT—The Association of Manufacturing Technology that is now overseen by the MTConnect Institute, a consortium of machinery builders, supplier, end users and others that was founded in 2009 by the AMT.

MTConnect is an open-source, royalty free manufacturing protocol that was designed to connect devices and systems of different types that are made by different manufacturers. Essentially, it translates information obtained from a machine tool or piece of manufacturing equipment into a common language based on Internet standards; in this case, HTTP and XML over TCP/IP. Because it is Web based, it can deliver data anywhere in the world. It is customizable to fit any manufacturing environment and be used on machine tools no matter the vendor.

By reporting in an Internet friendly way, it makes the information easier to understand for the end user and allows software developers to write applications that can better utilize real-time information. For instance, software can monitor a machine and automatically generate email or text messages to report downtime, faults and other information.

While still evolving and growing in application, even just the initial use, shop floor monitoring, has been shown to make a company more productive. According to the MTConnect Institute, manufactures that implement the standard for machine monitoring achieved a 20 percent improvement in overall equipment effectiveness, or OEE, in a 10-week span.

Yet, even as the protocol nears the 10-year mark since it was first discussed at a 2006 AMT annual meeting, there are still unknowns. Despite a growing roster of equipment builders, software vendors, trainers, consultants, and suppliers of agents and adapters—the hardware and software tools that help bridge the linguistic gap—among others, some people still question whether the standard is right for their shop.

According to a primer from the MTConnect Institute, “Getting Started with MTConnect: Monitoring Your Shop Floor—What’s In It for You?” shop owners “may assume it is intended only for CNC-type machines,” but that is not the case. The standard has been written so that newer CNC equipment as well as older, legacy machines with little connectivity can utilize it, according to the whitepaper.

The idea that small and medium-sized shops are not using the standard is not correct, but the idea persists. Russell Waddell, MTConnect production manager for AMT, said: “I just had a phone conversation with an IT guy who has a new way to measure utilization who wondered the same thing. I will tell you the same thing I told him. I have seen just as many small- and medium-sized shops adopting the standard as their has been large shops. It’s just that you won’t necessarily hear about the small shops because they don’t make as big a splash, they operate under the radar.”

For the fabricator?

If small shops are using it, how about metal fabricators? Is MTConnect a standard applicable to them? For the most part, its usage has been adopted by machine shops, but supporters feel that as the standard is extensible, it can be used for laser cutters, welding machines, stamping machines, presses, and other forming and fabricating technology. In fact, the standard is expected to address these technologies in the near future.

The AMT is working to attract more fabricators to join the MTConnect Institute. To this aim, Waddell attended last November’s Fabtech show to meet vendors and industry experts and recruit potential TAG members that are regularly updating the standard.

In November 2014, version 1.3 was released that improved on inter-device communication such as between a bar feeder and a lathes. This is as opposed to two different models of milling machines or lathes talking to each other, said Waddell.

Version 1.4 is already under review, and version 1.5 is under discussion and might be ready in as soon as 2 years. That version may be of particular interest for fabricators.

“We are looking at a whole host of new equipment,” said Waddell. “We’re looking at welding, we’re looking at some other forming and fabricating equipment such as industrial lasers, and additive machines.”

Trade show recruiting

Waddell’s trip to Fabtech was not atypical of the Institute as trade shows have been fertile ground for finding interested users in the past.

One of the first company’s to implement MTConnect was ITAMCO, the Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies.

The standard first got on the company’s radar in 2008 at the International Manufacturing Technology Show where it was demoed for the first time, said Joel Neidig, technology manager for the Plymouth, Ind., based company. At the show, Neidig and other ITAMCO principles watched as data from multiple machine tools operated by multiple exhibitors was collected in real-time.

ITAMCO makes large components for OEMS, provides precision machining services, and does precision gear manufacturing. The company had been looking at ways to monitoring their machinery, but what they had found were offerings that were too expensive and proprietary. They didn’t want to get locked into one company’s offerings; they wanted the flexibility that open protocol standard provides.

“If you get locked down with that company,” Neidig said, “you’re stuck with them because they don’t have an open protocol. It’s their own proprietary way of getting those signals.”

ITAMCO found its answer in MTConnect. With this protocol, the job shop monitors 30 types of machine tools and controls and more than 200 machines that operate at two facilities. Located 15 miles apart, the facilities are linked by a direct-fiber connection—and by MTConnect. Equipment includes CNC machines such as various horizontal and vertical machining centers, gear grinding, milling, turning and shot-peening machines.

“With real-time information, we can react faster and be more preventative as opposed to waiting until the last minute and then realizing, ‘oh wow, this is a mess and it is too late to fix it’.”

 ITAMCO has integrated MTConnect in multiple ways throughout the company, from high-level ERP systems down to the machine tool and that has helped them increase productivity by monitoring utilization by an estimated 10 percent. The company has even begun monitoring energy consumption throughout the facility as well as at individual machine stations or groups of machines. With this knowledge, they have cut energy costs. For instance, they know when and how fast to power up machines to get the best electricity rates, “as opposed to turning all of the machines on at once, at the beginning of the day, when the rates are at the highest.”

The company is developing its own applications for MTConnect. They created an iPhone app that lets them track machines and other equipment 24-hours a day from anywhere in the world.

They also developed a Bluetooth-enabled device called iBlue that can wirelessly acquire, record, and share material information by computer or Smartphone. A mobile application lets users test a part’s material hardness, temperature, and capture other data.

Additionally, ITAMCO developed an app that utilizes Google Glass technology. In a video detailing the technology, a manager tours the facility checking parts and equipment. When looking at a part, the wearer calls up part information that is then displayed on the Glass. At a machining operation, he checks spindle speeds and other information and even video calls a colleague to discuss the project.

While already an avid user of MTConnect, Neidig aid they are continuing the work to further utilize the standard including integration into their quality efforts and preventative maintenance.


The DMG Messenger allows for online monitoring of a company’s DMG MORI machines. Credit: DMG Mori

Fight the fire

Another early adopter of MTConnect is Task Force Tips Inc. (TFT) based in Valparaiso, Ind. The company makes nozzles and other fire-fighting equipment.

Nate Price, a TFT software developer, who, in his previous role as CNC programmer was a key person in the company’s implementation of MTConnect, said the company likes to keep on the cutting edge in terms of the amount of productivity it can get from machinery, even older machines. “We’ve been able to keep increasing output without adding extra machines because we upgrade them with modern technology,” he said.

MTConnect is one such method to increase productivity. As with ITAMCO, the company was looking to better monitor their machinery and found only expensive, proprietary systems.

Machine monitoring was the primary driver for implementing MTConnect, but since then they reportedly are using it for a variety of activities including scheduling production of their products. “It starts with just monitoring, just getting base line numbers such as how long does it take to make a part, how long are our setups taking, but we are excited about what we can do in the future.”

TFT uses MTConnect on all of its CNC machines, of which there are 20 in all, as well as saws, a wire electrical discharge machine (EDM), and more. The company’s products are primarily made from aluminum for the materials’ anti-corrosion properties and, for some products that require greater durability, 303 and 316 stainless steel is used.

A big benefit of the standard’s implementation, Price said, is that machinery operators can quantify how well they are running their machines. Cycle counters were set up so that the operators can easily monitor a job’s progress and jump between the machines and be in front of the machine when the cycle ends instead of seeing the light come on and then having to go over to it, he said.


ITAMCO a precision machine shop has integrated MTConnect with a Google Glass app that it developed. Credit: ITAMCO


With TFT’s range of equipment, they have a mix of machines. Newer machines, those made since the standard took hold, are MTConnect-enabled already and hooking them up to the factory network is relatively easily. Much like buying an off-the-shelf computer printer, taking it out of the box, plugging it in and hitting print.

Older machines will not have this plug-and-play capability, and require more work. “It helps to have an electrician on staff as we (TFT) do, but even without that (technical expertise), many vendors can help hook up old machines through interface hardware.”

The Institute’s membership now include suppliers of MTConnect agents and adapters. These hardware and software utilities enable existing machine tools and other shop floor equipment to use the MTConnect communication protocol.

ITAMCO, for example, has a slew of equipment, not all of which are sophisticated CNC models. For some, connectivity equates to simple serial ports. On some machines, Neidig said they use a small PLC with an Ethernet connection that taps into a machine’s I/O and can generate basic data on cycle times and if there have been alarms. While it is not the height of sophistication and doesn’t capture a voluminous amount of data, this can be enough to make that machine traceable and ultimately more efficient.

Waddell has broken implementation into three categories: good, better, and best. He cautions that the MTConnect Institute does not tell users exactly what to do or what products or services to buy, but says there are good solutions available no matter the machines involved.

Given that caveat, there’s a good solution if a user has a machine that can be measured with an after-market board, or if it can be measured with a set of external third-party sensors. That’s the good solution.

The better solution, Waddell added, is that you have a more modern machine with a CNC control; where you’ve got either an RS 232 port, or you’ve got an Ethernet board you can use to extract the data from the controller.

The best solution is a brand-new machine or one made in the last five years by an MTConnect compliant vendor, where it ships out of factory already enabled or it can get a retrofit. Legacy equipment falls under that, the good situation, as opposed to the better or the best, and in that case, a lot of the data is coming off of integrated I/Os or external sensors.

 As the number of MTConnect-enabled equipment grows, applications are sure to grow, communication will increase, babble will decrease. Whole factories may be linked. One supplier, Mazak, has already developed the iSmart Factory concept that uses the MTConnect standard plans for 10 of its facilities worldwide to utilize MTConnect, in countries speaking their own languages.


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