The digital turn in the machine tool market


It’s a long way from the first hand-hewn workpieces to state-of-the-art computer-controlled machine tools with their versatile and highly precise machining options. Digitalization is now taking the development of machines and CNC control technology toward an evolutionary leap that will open up previously unknown opportunities to boost productivity and permanently change the nature of industrial production. Machines are now being designed, constructed, and operated in a fundamentally new way. It’s being described as the digital turn in the machine tool market.


In this interview, we’ll learn what this means in specific terms from two pioneers who are helping shape the digital transformation of machine tools: Dr. Wieland Klein, CTO of machine tool manufacturer and pilot customer Heinrich Georg in Kreuztal, and Dr. Wolfgang Heuring, CEO of Siemens Motion Control. Siemens is marketing the first ‘digital native’ in the form of SINUMERIK ONE. 

Dr. Klein, what do you believe are currently the greatest challenges facing machine tool development?


Klein: For Heinrich Georg in particular, the challenges in developing large-scale grinders and travel stand milling 

machines lie in making constant improvements to productivity and availability. To a certain extent, that can no longer be achieved simply by improving existing approaches. That’s why we need new machine designs that can be implemented as quickly as possible and will function reliably and immediately for one-off production orders. Because the level of investment needed runs to seven figures, building trial machines isn’t an option. That’s what distinguishes us as design engineers for large, customized machine solutions, from manufacturers of mass-produced machines. We don’t have the opportunity to convert products retrospectively or make trial units. The first machine is the one that’s sold!




Have demands on machine tools changed greatly in recent years?


Klein: Absolutely. The required levels of precision have increased dramatically, along with the demands in terms of operator training, depending on the type of machine and the region in question. Large-scale lathes, with workpieces weighing several hundred metric tons and several meters in diameter, are expected to run true with a tolerance of less than ten microns.

Dr. Heuring, digitalization also includes machine tools. Where do you see the greatest potential for development?


Heuring: I perceive the greatest potential for development in the virtual representation of a machine, covering all aspects from the design process to engineering and commissioning. Using this ‘digital twin,’ you can essentially construct and operate a machine in the same way as one in real life. This reduces the time, risk, and costs involved in actual commissioning, because the virtual and the real machine are identical. This gives mechanical engineers the chance to test and optimize so much in a virtual environment before they have to construct and commission real prototypes at all. 



Klein: We mainly utilize the option of virtual commissioning for our machines using the digital twin. And now we are able to develop digital prototypes. We are excited by how easy it is to master such a complex subject using the software from Siemens. We would have expected it to be a lot more time-consuming. Running the development and commissioning processes in parallel saves a lot of time. Work on optimizing the machine now starts before commissioning using the digital twin. We can be assured of higher machine availability through predictive maintenance, faster start-up curves, and improved service-friendliness. Digitalization is also the first step toward developing intelligent machine tools.

Siemens enthusiastically describes SINUMERIK ONE as the first ‘digital native’ in control technology. Dr. Heuring, tell us what this means.


Heuring: In this connection, ‘digital native’ means that the CNC controller was developed entirely in the digital world. With SINUMERIK ONE the digital twin becomes an integrated part of the CNC controller, which means that virtual and real control are melting and completing each other. Machine builder can develop and test their machines in the virtual world with SINUMERIK the same way, long before they actually build the real machine. And machine operators can use the digital twin for operations to simulate processes , which increases safety in real operations. 


Klein: We deal with large machines, partly with more than 20 NC-controlled axes. It’s only with SINUMERIK ONE that we can appropriately reflect such complex machine parameters. And it’s only now that we can use the digital opportunities for machine tools to the full. 


To what extent are we looking at a paradigm shift or ‘digital turn’ in machine tool manufacture thanks to digital control technology like SINUMERIK ONE? What’s fundamentally new, beyond the productivity improvements that have been mentioned?


Klein: In addition to running the development and application processes in parallel thanks to the option of virtual commissioning in the digital twin, I view data-based networking as offering the greatest potential for our customers, and our customers’ customers. We really are breaking new ground in this area. Digitalization gives machines a memory. Processing systems, like rolling mills, can now draw on data from prior machine use when processing sheet metal, so they can better optimize the processes and make them faster. The fundamentally new aspect for us is that we can draw on digital opportunities to transform ourselves more and more from traditional mechanical engineers into intelligent process optimizers. 

As a ‘digital native,’ SINUMERIK ONE creates a bridge to the Internet of Things for machine tools. Where do you perceive the greatest benefit?


Klein: In large-scale plants, to a certain extent, machines are already networked and connected to higher-level production control systems. And it worked in earlier times, too. But the new digital opportunities make the networking tighter and faster, and it will also work wirelessly in the future with the use of 5G. Thanks to networking and data-sharing between the machines, we expect to be able to improve planning for downtimes and service inputs, as well as manufacturing times. For our customers, we’d like to gather experiences from machine operation in the form of data and analyze it using artificial intelligence so it can be used to optimize future machines and operating processes.



HeuringSINUMERIK ONE supports smart manufacturing best and provides interfaces to connect with cloud and edge infrastructures. High-frequency machine data can be analyzed and processed locally using Edge Computing solutions. The connection to Edge computing means it’s possible to achieve a much more accurate view of processing activities in operation: SINUMERIK ONE acts as a kind of digital magnifying glass in this regard.

What opportunities does digitalization offer for machine users? How will industrial production change in the years to come thanks to digital products like SINUMERIK ONE?


Klein: The digital twin offers our customers the opportunity to provide risk-free training in the area of large machine tools for the first time. Just like a flight simulator, the digital twin can be used to test how a machine will function without the risk of errors resulting in costly damage, or having a real machine out of action for valuable productive time during the training period. Intelligent assistance systems can also guarantee machine operation in cases where properly trained specialists are either not available or not available in sufficient numbers. The machine learns in such cases to think along with the operator. I see the main added value for our customers in improving the availability of our machines thanks to predictive maintenance, and also in increased productivity. For our roll grinding machines, we have already achieved an improvement in the double-digit percentage range thanks to machine learning with SINUMERIK ONE.


Will the introduction of SINUMERIK ONE open up new business areas for you?


Klein: Yes, SINUMERIK ONE is opening up new business areas for us. This relates to the transition from mechanical engineers to intelligent process optimizers that I mentioned earlier. With the new wealth of data obtained from the simulations and real machine operation, we can provide our customers with much more thorough assistance throughout the entire lifecycle of their machines using data-based optimizing services.



Heuring: Our customers, the mechanical engineers, will develop in the next few years from being ‘just’ hardware firms to businesses that also sell software. Siemens will also develop still further, in addition to the broad variety of our hardware and software automation portfolio we'll be offering our customers an increasing range of IoT technologies and applications. There will be totally new service models, which will form an important market for the future, both for us as technology suppliers and for mechanical engineers. Siemens will apply its entire digital portfolio to the elaboration of new business models, from product lifecycle management software to the interface with the TiA Portal, the Cloud connection via the MindSphere IoT platform, AI-assisted optimizations, and the local processing of high-frequency machine data using Edge applications

By drawing on our entire digital portfolio, we can cover holistically the entire ecosystem of mechanical engineers, machine equipment suppliers, and software developers in the digital age of machine tools, and work with machine manufacturers to help machine operators digitalize and optimize their manufacturing processes to further boost productivity and increase competitiveness. 

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