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Fanuc, Balluff Add RFID Machine-Tool Controllers

Fanuc's miLink Tool ID integrates RFID interrogators with computer numerical controlled (CNC) controllers to allow manufacturers to track tool setup and usage.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 12, 2010Fanuc CNC America, a manufacturer of computer numerical controlled (CNC) controllers for machine tools, has teamed 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. Fanuc has a 51 percent share of its market, selling machine-tool controls to such machine-tool builders as MAG Cincinnati, Hardinge, Romi and Mori Seiki. The company currently has 300,000 units in use in the United States.

CNC controllers operate machine tools used to manufacture products. The 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. In addition, because a tool can be used only for a specific amount of time or a particular number of tasks, the operator has needed to keep track of how the tool has been used, or examine it to determine if it is getting 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.

Balluff machine-tool passive RFID tags operate at 70 kHz and 455 MHz.

Balluff and Fanuc believe RFID can be employed to 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 regarding which tools are located where, in order to adjust the machine's operations, or to send an alert if the wrong tools have been installed). The miLink box became commercially available in January of this year.

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, which are designed to help manufacturers track the type and size of tool being utilized, measure the tool automatically, using cameras to take an image of it. A presetter uses that image to calculate the tool's size and type, and then 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.

An RFID tag enbedded in a tool holder (left) is encoded by an RFID reader wired to a presetter.
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, explains Mark Sippel, Balluff's product marketing manager.

For that reason, Sippel says, many end users have opted against using RFID. Balluff and Fanuc teamed up to solve the problem, and Fanuc developed the resulting miLink solution. Both companies now sell the miLink Tool ID device with their own products.

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