What’s So Smart about the SmartBox?

By: Mark Albert, Modern Machine Shop – October 30, 2015

mazak smartbox

Mazak Corporation showcased the Mazak SmartBox at its Discover 2015 Technology and Education Event October 27-29 at its North American Manufacturing Headquarters in Florence, Kentucky. (The event will continue November 3-5.) Developed in collaboration with Cisco, a supplier of IT connectivity solutions, and Memex Inc., a provider of machine-to-machine communication solutions, the SmartBox is designed to ease the connection of machine tools to a Web-enabled, plant-wide network. Establishing such connections is the first and biggest step toward implementing this so-called Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) on the factory floor.

So what’s so smart about the SmartBox concept? I see five major advantages. Each of these addresses what have been obstacles to joining the IIoT movement.

1. It’s a box. The SmartBox is a mini electrical cabinet about the size of a typical household medicine chest. It can be mounted on the side of a machine enclosure. This enables the box to be connected to a machine tool in several ways. It can be directly interfaced to the electrical cabinet of newer CNC machines without rearranging the components already installed in the existing cabinet.

More significantly, the SmartBox can be connected to legacy equipment that may not have much in the way of electronic controls already in place. Adding off-the-shelf sensors to legacy machines that can then be wired to the I/O rack in the SmartBox gets these machines readily connectable to the shop network for data collecting and monitoring on a basic level. One box can serve several machines, depending on how the user wants to configure the network and how machines are arranged in the shop or plant.

2. The SmartBox provides a high level of data security. One of the main components inside the box is a Cisco industrial Ethernet 4000 series switch. IT departments will love this because the 4000 switch prevents unauthorized access to and from the machines and equipment on a network. Authorized access, however, becomes flexible, simple and secure. The IT people can control and manage network security without getting in the way of what the factory people need to do with critical manufacturing data. Other devices that can be installed in the SmartBox include PLCs and various sensor ports for additional applications.

3. The SmartBox uses MTConnect for interoperability. MTConnect is the open, royalty-free manufacturing communications protocol based on XML and HTTP Internet technology for real-time data sharing. Essentially, MTConnect provides a common vocabulary with standardized definitions for the meaning of data generated by a machine tool (alarms, signals, operator alerts, setting values, messages and so on).

Getting factory equipment to talk the same language, so to speak, is the key to using machine-generated data effectively from diverse machine types and control systems. Depending on the machine’s internal software (which may not use MTConnect natively), the appropriate MTConnect hardware adapter can be installed in the Ethernet switch mentioned above.

4. The SmartBox has built-in smarts. Mazak, Cisco and Memex worked together to enable the switch to do data collection, analysis and reporting with software running on the processor in the switch. With this capability, the switch can communicate directly with operators and shopfloor supervisors without going through the network servers. For example, Memex’s MERLIN manufacturing communications platform can provide local monitoring of machine conditions, do OEE calculations and other machine metrics for display as dashboards on a nearby flat screen or PC station.

Of course, the MERLIN platform can serve as the plant-wide machine monitoring and reporting system, using the SmartBox as a node on the network. But even before a shop or plant gets to that higher level of connectivity, the SmartBox can be delivering interpreted, actionable data on the shop floor.

5. The SmartBox was developed in the context of complete digital integration of the factory. Mazak calls its concept for this integration the iSmart Factory. This concept is being implemented in Mazak’s manufacturing operations worldwide, with its factories in Oguchi, Japan, and Florence, Kentucky, taking the lead. The iSmart Factory is what the IIoT will look like in these facilities and it is intended as a model for implementing the IIoT in all metalworking manufacturing companies.

In addition to the SmartBox, the iSmart Factory concept incorporates other Mazak developments such as Smooth Technology, which covers process and performance enhancements to machine controls and servo systems.

The SmartBox will be available to customers sometime in early 2016.

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