The flexible future of multi-axis machining
Christoph Stark, CEO of machine manufacturer imes-icore, is convinced that even today's most state-of-the-art milling machines have considerable room for increased automation. His company has taken the first step in that direction with a new control solution based on B&R automation technology. The first implementation for this new controller is a universal machine architecture, redesigned from the ground up, which imes-icore has already used successfully in numerous multi-axis machining applications.
When Stark speaks of increased automation, he means more than simply following the trend toward 5-axis machine tools able to create complex shapes without having to reposition the workpiece. "Particularly in applications with long milling times or large batch sizes, it is increasingly important for these machines to integrate with production lines and plant-level systems," he explains. "And it won't be long before they will be asked to take on additional functions such as measuring and engraving the workpiece."
Conventional CNC controllers, like the ones imes-icore has been using successfully in its Premium series for years, are not up to this task. After all, as Stark points out, "They lack the openness and flexibility you need to create a custom solution in an efficient and cost-effective way."
The same applies to the HMI design, which allows little if any room for customization to accommodate the wishes of machine builders and their customers.
Setting off on the ambitious course of completely reinventing its Platinum architecture, which would serve as the basis for a full ensemble of machine tools, imes-icore took the opportunity to revamp its automation solution as well.
12 weeks to a custom machine
"Our goal is to completely master every aspect of our control technology," says Stark. "That's the only way we'll be able to implement a custom solution quickly and on a reasonable budget so that we can deliver our customer a finished system within 10 to 12 weeks of receiving their order."
To achieve this, the automation needed to be just as open, flexible and manageable as the Platinum architecture itself. "B&R delivered impressively on every one of those criteria," concludes Stark. "We also appreciated B&R's ability as a partner to pick up on the latest technology trends and help us channel them into our solutions to our customers' advantage."
With B&R's support, imes-icore was able to quickly gather the expertise that allows it to tailor the control solution to each machine's unique requirements.
CNC as an automation component
The new control solution was built on the foundations of B&R's Generic Motion Control (GMC) concept and its comprehensive standard package of CNC functionality. B&R developed GMC as a solution to provide seamless automation of machining and handling processes. This unique platform brings together motion control, sequence control, drives and safety technology, as well as HMI and an array of communication interfaces into a single integrated system.
The standard CNC package builds on this platform to provide both the hardware components and the corresponding software functions needed to operate a typical CNC machine.
Custom CNC panel
The solution includes a CNC panel featuring a 15" portrait display with a keyboard and integrated keys for machine operation, plus a handheld device with a handwheel. As an added bonus, the CNC panel design can be largely customized according to the wishes and requirements of the machine builder and their end customer. With the HMI application and preprogrammed software functions included in delivery, the development process is considerably streamlined. It is also no problem at all for the machine builder to modify or expand the CNC software as needed.
As a platform for executing the control and HMI applications, imes-icore selected a powerful industrial PC from B&R's Automation PC 910 series. At its side, a SafeLOGIC controller handles integrated safety functionality. Drives from the ACOPOSmulti series provide dynamic motor control, while a fast, real-time Ethernet POWERLINK network connects the drives – as well as the safe and standard I/O modules – to the controllers.
One controller for all actuators
The architecture's modular design allows it to be quickly and easily adapted to various types of machines. "We really appreciate having a controller that supports all types of actuators – whether stepper, servo or linear – with only minor modifications to the software," says Stark.
For imes-icore this is a key feature. After all, the Platinum architecture is designed to allow customers to select either normal spindle drives or linear motors. The aluminum-granite sandwich construction of the moving axes combines lightweight strength with the rigidity needed for maximum precision. These axes also feature crumple zones designed to absorb the force of an impact and prevent damage to the granite – which minimizes the amount of downtime required for repairs.
imes-icore also designed the Platinum architecture to allow the work area to be adapted flexibly to customers' requirements. As a member of the ISEL Group, imes-icore also received support from its sister company, ISEL Germany, who manufactures automation components such as spindle drives and linear guide rails.
The real-time Ethernet protocol POWERLINK provides optimal support for controlling high-speed axes such as the spindle drives used in milling machines. A transmission speed of 100 Mbit/s and a synchronization accuracy of +/- 100 ns make it easy to combine control logic, robotics, CNC and motion control on a single network – allowing for machines with a higher degree of automation than ever before.
New controller proves itself in the field
The overwhelmingly positive reaction to the price/performance ratio of the more than 40 milling machines already in use – featuring the powerful new control solution from B&R – is no great surprise.
Yet imes-icore has no intention of resting on its laurels. "We'll soon be using the B&R controllers for our water jet and laser cutting machines as well," announces Stark. The company is also working on integrating its open CAD/CAM software into the controller and, further down the road, providing ERP integration as well.
For an increased degree of automation, imes-core has already developed a laser engraving head and integrated it in the controller. "With this project, we've taken a big step toward our vision of a milling machine that not only completely processes each workpiece start-to-finish, but inspects them as well," says Stark. "With B&R at our side, we have the right partner to go the rest of the way – a partner whose automation expertise and market understanding perfectly complement our many years of experience in the field of CNC."
"The B&R control solution delivered impressively in terms of openness, flexibility and manageability. We also appreciated B&R's ability as a partner to pick up on the latest technology trends and help us channel them into our solutions to our customers' advantage." Christoph Stark, CEO, imes-icore GmbH