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How Can I Use RFID in CNC Machining?

Posted By RFID Journal, 03.25.2014

Could the technology be utilized for the purpose of tool identification?

—Name withheld


Computer numerical controlled (CNC) machining involves the use of computers to operate machine tools used to manufacture products. CNC devices run a variety of tools, including drills, cutters and grinding wheels. The type of machine tool is dictated by the specific application the manufacturer is undertaking. Historically, machine tool operators have needed to manually input data regarding each tool as it is placed in a machine's "tool changer," which is similar to a carousel. Because a tool can be used only for a specific amount of time or a particular number of tasks, the operator has needed to track how the tool has been used, or examine it to determine if it is becoming worn out. There is always the possibility of human error, causing a system to shut down because a tool either broke during the manufacturing process, was not operating properly due to being worn out, or was not installed in the correct location and was thus being used inappropriately.

In 2010, Fanuc CNC America, a manufacturer of computer numerical controlled (CNC) controllers for machine tools, teamed up with sensor maker Balluff Sensors Worldwide to offer miLink Tool ID, a device enabling an interface between Balluff's RFID-based sensor system and Fanuc's controllers for tracking tool use in manufacturing systems (see Fanuc, Balluff Add RFID Machine-Tool Controllers). Fanuc has a 51 percent share of its market, selling machine-tool controls to several major machine-tool builders. The company currently has 300,000 units in use in the United States.

Balluff and Fanuc teamed up because RFID can reduce the chance of human error. MiLink Tool ID—a small, box-shaped device containing an interface module, RFID middleware and a processor unit—receives RFID data from a reader in the controller, via a cabled connection. The interrogator reads tags on tool holders inserted into the machine tool, and directs that information to the appropriate location in the CNC controller (which utilizes data indicating which tools are located at which locations, in order to adjust the machine's operations, or to issue an alert in the event that the wrong tools have been installed).

The tool holders' RFID tags are encoded by a reader installed at a presetter (a device that determines the type of tool in use, as well as its specifications). Presetters, designed to help manufacturers track the types and sizes of tools being employed, measure each tool automatically, using cameras to take an image of it. A presetter then utilizes that image to calculate the tool's size and type, and stores that data, which a worker prints on a paper label and later inputs into the CDC controller to guide the machine tool's operation.

Balluff's RFID sensor system consists of an interrogator and an RFID RS232 processor that provides software to exchange information between the presetter and the reader. Prior to the release of the miLink Tool ID, end users (such as automotive, aeronautics or health-care device manufacturers) had no simple means for automating their presetter data. If they installed Balluff's RFID sensors to link information from the reader to the machine tool controller—to date, approximately 1,000 customers worldwide have done so—they would have had to hire an experienced integrator, who would typically spend several days or weeks of integration work to allow the controller to understand and respond to data from the RFID reads. That deterred many firms from using RFID prior to the introduction of the miLink solution. Fanuc CNC America and Balluff now sell the miLink Tool ID device with their own products.

—Mark Roberti, Founder and Editor, RFID Journal

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