⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀Measured against the history of the human race, 60 years is only the blink of an eye. But when you’re considering how important a period is, what counts is not just how long it lasts, but what new ideas inventive people put to work during that time. And from that viewpoint, a new technology from Siemens achieved something revolutionary: automated control of tools with the aid of computers and drive units.
The First and Second Industrial RevolutionsWith the dawn of industrialization in the second half of the 18th century, the triumphal march of machines driven by steam or water power began. Under human control, they took over more and more work processes. The subsequent arrival of electricity spurred huge leaps in productivity.
Up to the start of the First Industrial Revolution, people had to rely mainly on their own strength and that of their domesticated animals for all their work. But the ingenious application of water power, and later steam, opened up entirely new options. English inventors began experimenting with the first such machines as early as the start of the 18th century. One of the leading figures in the latter part of this phase was James Watt, with his steam engine of 1769.
Within a few decades, the use of these new and almost inexhaustible forms of energy turned the English economy upside down. Power looms and spinning machines dominated the textile industry; steam engines made it possible to transport raw materials like cotton, coal and iron to production centers. The new technologies became well established at an especially early date in production processes that involved high energy consumption. Where before it had taken many hours of hard work to turn a piece of metal into a pipe, a pot or a tool, now pumps, hammers, bellows and rolling mechanisms were all machine-powered.
The Second Industrial Revolution, especially in Europe, coincided with the blossoming of the natural sciences. Researchers and inventors applied their discoveries in new machines, materials and production methods. These early top innovators developed their technical ideas and business models in their own workshops – what we would call startups today – and one of their most distinguished representatives was Werner von Siemens, who in 1866 was among several inventors who, independently and almost simultaneously, discovered the dynamo-electric principle.
Now electricity began its triumphal march. More and more large cities in Northern Europe were equipped with power plants to generate electricity. Buildings and streets were lit by electricity night and day. Trams were no longer drawn by horses or driven by steam engines, but ran on electricity. Here again, Werner von Siemens was a pioneer: the tram he developed in 1881 picked up current from the rails, and thus did a faster job of carrying people and goods.
The first numerical controls enhance precision and save time
World War II left Germany’s industrial centers and stocks of machinery in ruins. But there followed a period now known as the Wirtschaftswunder – the “Economic Miracle.” West Germany rapidly caught back up with other industrialized nations, and soon had the world’s largest inventory of ultramodern machine tools. Around the same time, many scientists at U.S. research institutions and universities were turning their attention to two entirely new technologies: computers, and a short time later, microelectronics.
All the same, in 1946 the ENIAC, a computer developed for the U.S. Army, filled a space roughly the size of a gymnasium. No one would have thought that these complicated, malfunction-prone colossi would ever make their way into the rough world of machinery. Yet within just two decades, advances in microelectronics had rapidly shrunk the size of computers. Silicon semiconductors made it possible to build increasingly powerful integrated circuits on increasingly small areas. Transistors replaced vacuum tubes. In the Third Industrial Revolution, computers conquered the world of production.
Bulky though they may still have been, once the first computers became usable researchers began thinking about how the computing power they now offered might yield advantages in production. On a commission from the U.S. armed forces, in 1952 engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge developed the first numerically controlled machine tools. NC – numerical control – literally refers to controlling machine tools with the use of numbers; Siemens recognized the potential inherent in this innovative technology, and developed its first NC products in the second half of the 1950s. In 1964 it named them SINUMERIK.
New freedom for design
The first industrially usable NC product that Siemens brought to the market, in 1960, was installed on what was called a Pittler lathe. It made rod-shaped blanks that would be processed further into products like nails, screws, bolts and shafts. The trade world was impressed.
Up through the early 1990s, NC-controlled machines from Siemens were expensive to buy and complex to operate, so that they came to be used only in heavy industries like airplane or automotive construction. But as more economical CNC machines from competitors began to replace conventional machine tools in medium-sized companies’ workshops, Siemens was alert to the trend. In 1997 it began developing products that could apply SINUMERIK at the workshop level.
To continue SINUMERIK’s development efficiently and expand its market, Siemens astutely expanded on its traditional close relations with its customers. Customers – in this case, makers of machine tools – would report problems immediately, and Siemens corrected them right away. By the time the next version of SINUMERIK came out, the fix had already been incorporated as standard equipment. Companies quickly recognized that with a SINUMERIK controller they could produce bigger volumes with less staff. Given the right fittings and appropriate controls, a single machine could be used flexibly for many different work steps. Now the way to complete a workpiece was no longer stored away solely in a skilled worker’s memory – it was recorded on punch cards, magnetic tape, and later, electronic storage media.
Workpieces could now be processed to a hitherto unknown degree of perfection. Mirror-smooth metal surfaces, dimensions precise to tenths of a millimeter, and later, tool control in three dimensions shortened production times, sometimes drastically. Designers gained entirely new freedom for their concepts, which could now be put into operation industrially. Siemens quickly recognized how SINUMERIK would change the world of production, and in 1972 it built a new equipment plant in Erlangen, where it would continue developing NC products and still produces them today.
Unimaginable once, now indispensable: Machine tools with SINUMERIK controls
A steady stream of new machines need steadily improved versions of SINUMERIK
Now the consumer goods industry came on board as well. As prosperity grew, consumers in industrialized nations wanted products that met their individualized desires. Consumer goods came onto the market at ever-shorter intervals, in constantly new versions. For that, manufacturers needed flexible machines that could be retooled quickly for new working processes. And SINUMERIK became indispensable.
Development in controls and in machine tools got into a race. The more sophisticated machine tools became, the more their controls had to deliver. The biggest challenge was to get the controls and the machine into harmony, and avoid mismatches between the workpiece and the tool – thus minimizing hours of downtime.
Constantly evolving: SINUMERIK innovations for machine tools
SINUMERIK and the digital twinNow came another milestone: the digital twin. It would change production fundamentally once again. Today the product and the machine to make it are planned simultaneously. There are fewer limits to production than ever. Advancing digitalization and the unlimited storage capacity, both locally and in the Cloud, permit entirely new manufacturing processes that are initiating the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Based on ultrafast computing power and sophisticated data transmission methods, people, machines and all production processes are becoming networked together.
Machines and robots work hand in hand
And production technology is evolving further with new concepts. Robots have earned a place in the factory, and Siemens has been a pioneer in “marrying” them with CNC machines. With this combination, production processes can be made even more dynamic and even more highly automated. For the purpose, the robot’s programming is merged with the SINUMERIK programming. The complex control algorithms that manage the workpiece’s rotation, the speed of machining, and much more, can thus be used to control the robot as well. The result: the machine and the robot work hand in hand. For instance, the robot can remove a milled workpiece from the machine and polish or deburr it.
Here it benefits from the high level of precision that SINUMERIK has been steadily refining since its beginnings 60 years ago. Thanks to the controls, the robot “knows” exactly what tools it needs to machine the workpiece, and at what intensity. That enhances productivity in the digital factory still further.