Things Are Heating Up For Touchscreens

I suppose those who decry the ongoing de-skilling of machining will have something to say about touchscreens. Others will welcome the relief of programming chores. We shall see.

When the weather gets hot here in the United Kingdom, like it is as I write in August, with the temperature nearing 100°F, things tend to stop. Health & Safety officers get worried about welded railroad tracks buckling so they slow trains down to 60 mph. Asphalt melts on the roads. It gets harder to concentrate, and, I imagine, CNC programmers look forward to getting the day off for a swim should the air conditioning fail.

Are these CNC programmers now living on borrowed time? Surely not: They are as much a part of the machine tool shop environment as change wheels and dividing heads were in the 1950s.

Change wheels make one think about change. We had punch card, punched paper tape, magnetic tape and decade switch-operated NC for about 20 years before CNC appeared. It does not take a week or so for a bright young technician to get his or her mind around G codes these days because the CNC programming systems are getting easier and easier.

I know surface grinding is not a usual topic in Production Machining, but when something startling happens on the grinding control front, and a lathe producer also thinks it is a good idea, then one takes notice!

At a recent series of “Open Days” held by surviving homegrown U.K. machine tool builder Jones & Shipman, the company introduced its “easy” range of touchscreen surface and profile grinders. It was my first introduction to GE Fanuc’s touchscreen technology. Jones & Shipman had developed icon-based software, such that the grinding machine operator only has to touch the relevant icons to create programs comprising up to 20 linked cycles. For the record, cycles such as plunge, area, multi-slot and face grind can be executed individually or linked together in any combination. Completed programs can be simply and quickly uploaded/downloaded at a PC or PDA for storage and recall. The system leads the operator through this process and the programming of dressing cycles. Jones & Shipman has also introduced Fanuc’s touchscreen system to its cylindrical grinders, including the icon-based programming of a B-axis wheelhead.

Moving from cylindrical grinders to turning centers, U.K. stalwart Harrison has contributed to the spread of the electronic lathe known to some as half-NC or combination lathe. Harrison has applied Fanuc’s touchscreen 21i-T to its Alpha range of flat bed combination toolroom lathes in the form of its 1000 Series control. The machine offers a combination of HPG handwheel/DRO (manual) control, Alpha System, ISO programming and what the company calls the Manual Guidance System. Harrison says the latter, with its 1000 Series touchscreen, “enables the full generation of simple cutting profiles and complex automatic programs directly at the machine.” Programs generated in this way can be readily converted to a full CNC program.

Some would argue that what some manufacturers call the lean practice of recruiting hot dog vendors to come in off the street and not just operate, but program, a machine tool may soon be a reality.

Jones & Shipman—and I would imagine Harrison’s parent, The 600 Group—are pushing Fanuc to cooperate in developing more advanced touchscreen systems to generate more complex programs, so that the operator will be able to fill the programmer’s function with only minimal training.

Now we have the next EMO looming up on the horizon. This year’s venue is Milan, Italy. It will be interesting to see how many more machine tool builders are focusing on touchscreen programming.

Maybe the ongoing development will simplify further the programming of multi-axis CNC turning centers and CNC multi-spindle automatics. One could also include CNC dial-type transfer machines and linear transfer lines.

I suppose those who decry the ongoing de-skilling of machining will have something to say about touchscreens. Others will welcome the relief of programming chores. We shall see.