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Development of a STEP and STEP-NC standard based integrated product lifecycle management solution to increase the competitiveness of European machine tool manufacturing SMEs

Final Report Summary - STEPMAN (Development of a STEP and STEP-NC standard based integrated product lifecycle management solution to increase the competitiveness of European machine tool manufacturing SMEs)

Executive Summary:
Computer aided design and manufacturing processes are fundamental in the manufacturing sector. The current CAD-CAM-CNC production methods only offer a unidirectional manufacturing information flow from CAD to CNC. Moreover, the manufacturing information loss and fragmentation during the transition along the CAD-CAM-CNC chain, disallows changes made downstream to be tracked back upstream. Additionally, due to the lack of interoperability between various software and hardware systems, the SMEs have to select their production technology carefully in order to be compatible with as many customers and suppliers as they can.

The conventional way of using numerical controlled (NC) machine tools involves the utilisation of G&M codes. These codes form a sequential programming language formalised in ISO6983 that only contains simple commands for mechanical axis movement and switching operations; there is no notion of geometry or logical structures. In order to satisfy the requirements of interoperable manufacturing, a new standard has been developed under the ISO 14649 (STEP-NC). A STEP-NC compliant programme would contain the geometry and topology, machining working steps, manufacturing features and the tolerances of these features among other items of information about the final product in a machine tool independent format.

The Consortium has successfully developed a manufacturing platform that allow smooth data exchange between CAD/CAM systems and CNC machines to promote flexibility within and between SMEs to increase their competitiveness and to reduce the process planning cycle. The developed prototype system was tested in real industrial environment and passed the validation requirements set by the project.

The Consortium members aim to further develop the prototype to a market ready product in the near future.
Project Context and Objectives:
STEPMAN project developed a STEP and STEP-NC standard based integrated product lifecycle management solution to increase the competitiveness of European machine and mechanical manufacturing SMEs. The main objective of STEPMAN system is to provide a manufacturing platform that allows smooth data exchange between CAD/CAM systems and CNC machines to promote flexibility within and between SMEs to increase their competitiveness and to reduce the process planning cycle.

The objectives are:
Interoperability between CAx Systems: STEPMAN uses the STEP (ISO10303) and STEP-NC (ISO14649) standards which is rich in manufacturing information to allow the product and machining data to be transferred between various CAD/CAM software. STEPMAN makes the current unidirectional data flow redundant and replace it with a bidirectional flow that will create a much more flexible and optimised design process that is not restricted to any one CAD/CAM or CNC system.

Increasing the Competitiveness of SMEs:
STEPMAN increases the competitiveness of individual SMEs with respect to larger organisations by easily combining the manufacturing capabilities of a group of SMEs as well as reducing the time and cost of production and quality control. A large manufacturing order can be split and spread between the various SMEs in an association depending on the available manufacturing capabilities of each individual SME. STEPMAN also ensures that suppliers within a supply chain produce exactly the required parts.

Ability to Reuse Legacy NC Programs:
STEPMAN allows for older legacy NC programs that run on specific CNC machines or controllers that are no longer available to be used on any current machine. Old NC programs are read by STEPMAN and interpreted to generate a new NC program for any new CNC machine or new CNC controller that is available on the shop floor while using the full capacity of the new machine.

Project Results:
The project was three years in duration. It started on 1st of November 2011 and finished on the 31st of January 2015. The project was suspended at the end of the first month for 3 months duration due to a partner change in the Consortium.
During the project execution great emphasis was focused on the market information to develop a system that meets the needs from the end-users. For this purpose several survey were conducted in the beginning of the project as well as later during the execution. The inputs gathered was used in fine-tuning the system as well as for the planning the exploitation route of the achieved results.
Following the initial specification the basic software structure of the system was created in line with the necessary database structures. After this phase the concrete implementation of the system started focusing on both the centralised and company level databases. In parallel with this activity the core function development started first focusing on the CAD model manipulation, and the interpreters and later on focusing on the high level manufacturing functions within the STEPMAN Manufacturing Application Layer(MAL). In the second period the partners were focusing on the finalization of the core functions for manufacturing and included Wire EDM technology to the already developed Milling.
The underlying architecture was created with the main focus on the communication and the versioning. This gave the possibility to run all the modules together outside the development environment.
The client side of the system was finalized the GUI was developed and the core functions were integrated. During the System Validation, STEPMAN was installed at the SMEs and SME-AGs facilities. These installation events were connected with training activities and first the selected experts of the partners were trained on the use of the software. After the trainings the program was functioning at the end users in real environment and was continuously tested. Several feedbacks were given for the research partners, who updated and fine-tuned the system till the end of the project.
The developed Validation protocol was executed and the STEPMAN system successfully passed all the tests and achieved the expected results within industrial conditions.
Through the remaining time of the project the participation SMEs and Association members were more intensively trained to accumulate the extensive knowledge created during the development of the project. In line with the updated training plan in the last months of the projects there were dedicated trainings to end-user SME-AGs’ members. Besides the main purpose of the planned training seminars, these proved good opportunities for the SME-AGs to disseminate the project and its main findings. Hence the trainings served not only knowledge transfer platform but also a live prototype demonstration as well as a tailored dissemination opportunity. Posters, leaflets and the multimedia guide were also distributed.
The Associations and the SMEs intensively focused on developing a solid exploitation plan, to map the technical requirements of developing the prototype into a product, and how to bring it to the market. A basis for financial considerations of the real product and plans for future work have been identified in order to conclude a firm business plan by the project end. Alongside, the completed dissemination actions were collected and the database of the target audience was updated. The dissemination actions served as marketing opportunities of the planned commercial product. To realise the commercial product the IPR owners decided to go for further EC funding.
The project achieved all of its objectives, the main results are:
• System requirements specification created
• Manufacturing supporting functions developed and tested
• Core algorithms of STEPMAN developed and tested
o Bi-directional information transfer mechanism for CAD/CAM/CNC
o Enabling CNC interoperability
o Providing the ability to assess the manufacturing capability of an SME
• STEPMAN core functions and GUI integrated
• SMEs, SME-AGs & members’ technical and managerial staff trained in STEPMAN: use and benefit
• STEPMAN tested and validated within industrial conditions

Potential Impact:
The Commercial Novelties of the planned STEPMAN technology are:
- Reverse post-processors of NC data – STEPMAN interprets G&M Code to CAM model giving the opportunity both to reuse legacy G&M codes and to integrate shop floor changes back to CAM level
- Standardized interface for shop floor data (manufacturing data interchange platform) – STEPMAN utilises standard interfaces, defined within STEP (ISO10303), namely ISO10303-21 compliant text files to be used for data exchange between shop floor and the designers.
- Plug and play CAx – STEPMAN can be connected to virtually any kinds of existing CAx system through a general plugin interface. This rich interface, would allow items of data that are gathered from heterogeneous data sources in various formats (i.e. from MTConnect enabled machine tools or proprietary monitoring data formats) to be combined within a single framework for use of the design and manufacturing engineering department in an SME.
- Standard manufacturing semantic interfaces - STEPMAN through the utilisation of emerging suite of international standards within ISO14649, would allow future generation of manufacturing software and hardware to interface with the existing manufacturing resources that are already available within the SME. For example, the STEP-NC machine tool being developed in other, European FP7 research projects (i.e. FOFDation), can be interfaced with legacy machine tools within the SME allowing data exchange and manufacturing knowledge transfer to improve productivity WITHOUT requiring a major overhaul of the factory machinery.
STEPMAN achieves the above goals providing the following Technological Novelties:
- Intelligent G&M code interpretation
- Machine tool profile representation
- Version control of the NC code for traceability of any modifications. (Versions can be characterized for instance with QA results.)
Parts of the STEPMAN Platform are:
- Stepman Core that contains the main application logic
- A pluggable connector module called Stepman Plugin, that makes STEPMAN’s features, accessible for virtually any kinds of for CAx systems
- Stepman Storage that stores the models for a specific Company
- Stepman AG server that provides an interface to find partner inside an Association Group to manufacture a specific part with joint capabilities
Potential impact:
The main impact of the project will be on SME-AGs and their associated SMEs as they will have the technology to completely overhaul the traditional CAD/CAM/CNC chain. With STEPMAN, it will be possible to connect manufacturing resources to a rich information platform that will allow manufacturing knowledge to be captured throughout the production process and sent upstream or downstream as appropriate. Whilst due to limitations, the development work within STEPMAN will focus on a limited number of applications for this platform, the SME-AGs will be able to utilise the platform and extend the functionality to have a universal software platform that would allow bi-directional information transfer across all computer aided systems related to manufacturing.
The secondary impact of the project for the machine tool manufacturing SMEs in the EU will result in the medium term from the primary impact; when SMEs get access to information exchange platforms that allow them to use manufacturing resources from other SMEs and more importantly combine them with their own resources, they would be able to bid for much larger projects and thus generate more business for themselves.
Finally, the scientific impact of the project will have long term benefits. STEPMAN is developing a solid, robust and extensible foundation for software applications that would benefit from a rich manufacturing database; future researchers will be able to define future manufacturing applications that plug in to this platform, saving them from having to deal with heterogeneous information sources and significantly increasing research performance as a result.
Benefits for the European machine tool manufacturing sector
European machine tool manufacturers are facing different kind of challenges in the last few years (like the global financial crisis, increasing pressure from the competitors). To answer these challenges, European SMEs must implement novel strategies to be able to increase their competitiveness. STEPMAN project aims to produce an instrument for European Machine Tool Manufacturing SMEs, which helps to increase their competitiveness:
• by increasing the quality of their products
• By decreasing their manufacturing costs
• By developing a software tool, which makes possible joint design and production by different companies using different CAD/CAM software

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