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MACHINE TOOLS Take CNC programming to the next level with Artificial Intelligence

Jan 18, 2021

Industry 4.0 and Industry 4.0-based technologies have been shifting the pace and methodologies of working in the manufacturing industries. Its output, of course, is not comparable to what humans have been doing so far. While the machine tools industry has certainly been rising to the challenge of adopting and adapting AI and AI-based technologies, this article elaborates on the expectations that need to be kept in mind while choosing tools for the shop floor. - Alexandra Lancaster, Freelance Writer

We are in the throes of Industry 4.0, but it may look a little different than one expected. If anticipations are more about flying cars or robots, take heart — we were partially right. Artificial Intelligence, typically shortened to AI, is a cornerstone of the fourth industrial revolution. Automation is changing the fundamentals of many industries and manufacturing is certainly no exception.

What’s ‘smart’ about smart manufacturing?

The word ‘smart’ gets tossed around a lot when referencing any new innovation. But what does it mean, really? ‘Smart manufacturing’ is a broad term that can refer to a few different techniques and concepts. AI is at the heart of many of them, improving industrial systems and reducing inefficiencies automatically. Of course, none of this would be possible without human innovation. But the difference between automatic and manual processes is in the execution — humans tell AI how to do something correctly and robots have a much better track record for speed and accuracy.

Smart manufacturing is also defined by its use of the Industrial
Internet of Things (IIoT). One’s probably already familiar with

the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’, which refers to the way technologies communicate with each other. The IIoT is similar but it’s specific to industrial technologies. The instruments, sensors, gauges and other tools that exist in an industrial setting — often a factory — ‘speak’ to each other using the IIoT. In essence, this is the tool’s sensory mechanism. Without eyes and ears, single-function industrial tools collaborate with each other to build a schematic of the world in which they exist.

Although humans are great (we are the ones who created AI, after all), we are flawed. We make mistakes, get tired, need breaks and are slow to grasp new concepts, especially compared to robots. In a competitive manufacturing setting, where time is often a valuable commodity, there is no longer a place for analogue machining — shops of all sizes need to embrace the principles of Industry 4.0 or risk becoming obsolete.

Machine tools: Rising to the challenge

Machine tool manufacturers are hard at work creating solutions for the job shops of tomorrow. Let us explore some recent AI innovations that machine tool manufacturers have introduced to their products.

  • Predictive maintenance: Some tools come equipped with special monitors that keep an eye on the condition of a certain part, such as the spindle on a mill

  • Collision avoidance: Collisions between parts happen to the best of us, but they can be costly mistakes, especially when the machine tool itself becomes damaged. These systems run an application that simulates the cutting action a few seconds ahead of the live cut, predicting collisions and shutting down the process to prevent damage.

  • Reduced overhead: Machine tools require a massive amount of energy, even when they are idle. High operating costs can massively affect a shop’s bottom line, if they do not eat the cost, their customers will. Many machine tools use AI in the form of metres and sensors to evaluate how much energy they are using and where that energy is going. From there, the AI system can decide how to reduce energy consumption, temporarily powering down non-essential systems. When one is dealing with margins that size, the savings can be significant.

The right CAM software meets tools in the middle

Machine tools have amazing capabilities on their own, but without the right software, they are little more than hunks of metals. One likely has many factors that determine the best software for one’s shop, but perhaps the most important is its compatibility with your tools — now and in the future. Unlike machine tools, which remain relatively static throughout their lives, CAM software has the ability to be updated as frequently as new innovations become available. That’s why it is so important to partner with a future-focused CAM software company led by a robust R&D team that is excited to embrace the possibilities of tomorrow. By making the right CAM choice, he/she can keep their shop on the leading edge of innovation for years to come.

Here are some features to look for when shopping around:

Machine swap

There are many different scenarios that might require a new program for a different machine, like an inoperable machine, the need to increase production, moving from prototype to production and more.

This feature uses an AI engine to automatically update one’s program any time one changes the set-up or swap the machine. It can also automatically detect set-up changes without any manual input. Many times, switching between short runs for small lot sizes and multi-part production runs for larger lots seems like it is more trouble than it is worth. But the AI machine awareness behind machine swap provides an extra set of highly skilled eyes to reorganise the program, maximising process concurrency across multiple parts and optimising the total cycle time, regardless of the machine one is running.

Automatic links

Create one’s personal cutting cycle and let the AI-driven software create the fastest and safest positioning between tool operations with consideration of the limits of your specific machines. Think of the automatic links as one’s software’s GPS. Just as one’s app can provide one with the fastest route (even avoiding tolls and freeways if one would like), the link engine can ‘see’ the best route to connect one’s machining processes. With automatic links, one can tell their machine what to prioritise and watch it go from there.

Simulation, analysis and verification

These capabilities take the collision avoidance feature we mentioned earlier to a new level, generating a digital twin of the entire machining environment. One will be able to view a perfect model of one’s machine’s kinematics, reviewing the potential for collisions, axes overtravel, acceleration exceptions, and other conflicts before one makes a single cut.

Machine awareness for automatic program generation

This feature allows users to define the process plan for a single workpiece independently of the machine and how the workpiece is set-up. For example, select tooling and the cutting strategy and AI automatically adapts, sequences and optimises the list of tasks to be performed before generating the job for the CNC machine.

Stock-aware toolpath

The right AI-driven software analyses the real-time state of one’s stock, eliminating air cuts and minimising repositioning. The result? There is meaning behind each movement, leading to unparalleled efficiency and, often, significantly reduced cycle times.


Multichannel machines are especially useful because they can perform different actions concurrently. But with the wrong software, concurrent actions can set the stage for a collision. An AI engine can automatically synchronise & sequence the program for optimal use of the capabilities of a multichannel machine.

Short-run and production programs

Many times, switching between short runs for small lot sizes and multi-part production runs for larger lots seems like more trouble than it’s worth. But with AI machine awareness, one can have an extra set of eyes reorganising the program, maximising process concurrency across multiple parts and, thereby, optimising the total cycle time.

Intelligent work coordinates

For tombstone, fixture and work offset management, a high-quality AI engine can offer an automatic selection of work offset and coordinate transformations based on its awareness of the job. The system determines local references for every local machining feature and activates the necessary machine functions, including RTCP, tilted plane and dynamic fixture offset.

Capturing best practices

Features, such as ESPRIT’s KnowledgeBase™, eliminate the need for a manual recall of one’s shop’s best machining practices. Instead, it stores them in the software itself, allowing any operator to access what they need at any time.

With the right tools for automation in one’s shop, it can deliver what Industry 4.0 has long promised — highly efficient manufacturing that does not sacrifice safety for speed. Is your job shop ready to embrace it?

Image Gallery

  • For tombstone, fixture and work offset management, a high-quality AI engine can offer an automatic selection of work offset and coordinate transformations based on its awareness of the job

    For tombstone, fixture and work offset management, a high-quality AI engine can offer an automatic selection of work offset and coordinate transformations based on its awareness of the job

  • Alexandra Lancaster
Freelance Writer

    Alexandra Lancaster

    Freelance Writer

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