Metrology and quality information is only useful if it guides action, creating closed loop control. Expanding far beyond the quality lab, today’s high technology metrology devices guide robots, machine tools, and assembly lines. One company, Hexagon AB is getting ahead of this trend by transforming itself into a provider of manufacturing intelligence rather than simply metrology.
“Metrology as an isolated phenomenon is dead,” stated Ola Rollén, president and CEO of Hexagon AB in a press briefing on June 15 at the company’s annual user group meeting. “The world will always need metrology, but not by itself.” It is an attitude that explains the rebranding of Hexagon Metrology into Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence late last year. It also explains a number of acquisitions that now rebrand company has made recently including companies that specialize in data analysis software, CAM, and even a CAE simulation company.
In an earlier presentation, he made it clear that HMI intends to push the boundaries well beyond traditional metrology, expanding into a more integrated set of offerings. In practical terms, this will expand the traditional control loop metrology is normally a part of – providing data for SPC charts and design verification. The company now wants to establish links and offerings as far upstream in product development as possible, into concept design and creation. “What is needed is a flow of information between CAD, CAE, CAM, and [measuring devices],” he explained.
Can a company with its roots in metrology offer additional value to traditional CAD, PLM, and other offerings? Can it offer a bigger control loop?
Recognition and Awareness
HMI is responding to the realities of today’s manufacturing. The movement of precision metrology devices, like shop hardened CMMs, onto the shop floor and out of quality labs has been going on for a number of years. While engineering devices that offer precise measurements in the dirty, noisy environments of the typical factory remains a challenge, the greater challenge that is emerging is what to do with the volumes of digital measurement data these devices are now collecting. Not only is there more of it, it is being collected faster, matching faster production speeds and shorter decision cycles driven by competition. It is also easier to distribute that data, with faster and ubiquitous internet connections and cloud computing.
That is where Hexagon’s efforts in developing and acquiring software expertise enters the picture. In a separate interview, Norbert Hanke, president and CEO of Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence emphasized the importance of software development in his company’s future. A centerpiece of this strategy is Hexagon’s Metrology Management System (MMS), a product that Hexagon in the past described as a “PLM for metrology.” There are different levels of MMS, from using inexpensive sensors to measure critical machine parameters like temperature and humidity with its Pulse product to connecting and sharing metrology data across an organization with the Enterprise product. When questioned about the extent of MMS, Hanke quickly emphasized that they intend it as a platform product. “MMS is the backbone, and therefore that is what we are talking about when we speak of a platform,” he said. “We want to have a modular approach from MMS Pulse to Enterprise.”
Tom Stewart, president of Q-DAS (now a part of Hexagon) described five separate modular components of MMS: Pulse, Cadence, Statistics, Camera, and Enterprise. MMS Statistics and Camera is based on Hexagon’s Q-DAS acquisition, which closed in April of 2015 (and through which Stewart was acquired as well.) However, Hanke also implied that their MMS platform should not be viewed as composed only of Hexagon components, implying third party components should be able to connect to this platform eventually. “I think the big thing in manufacturing is you cannot have a closed system. You have to be open,” said Hanke. Pointing to the future of manufacturing loosely described as Industrie 4.0 (among other terms) he stressed it is important to have clear and open connectivity. “MMS could be the platform everyone connects to. We will invest, starting first with our [products] and then try and expand from that to others,” he said.
Hanke also stressed that Hexagon is not positioning MMS as a comprehensive PLM solution. I queried him in our interview about such enterprise-wide PLM solutions that grew from traditional CAD companies like Dassault Systemes or Siemens PLM. “We are a Quality company,” he answered. “We want to provide quality data in whatever form [is needed] to support PLM systems, because we do not have such a PLM system.” Connecting in any meaningful way upstream in the product development process will undoubtedly require such connections, through standards or converting data in native formats that Teamcenter or Enovia product could accept. On the other hand, Hanke also noted that not every company has a PLM system, since such systems are often associated with bigger companies. These too must be accommodated.
To help enable manufacturers to supply the action part of their paradigm (see graphic), Hexagon acquired Vero Software, a provider of CAM software, in 2015. Their products help design components with modules for metal fabrication, sheet metal stamping, metal cutting, and even woodworking. A bit more surprising, at least to me, was Hexagon’s purchase in March, 2016 of Forming Technologies, Incorporated, or FTI. They provide finite element CAE software for simulating sheet metal forming for tooling design, process planning, product design, and costing of sheet metal stampings, especially but not exclusively for automotive applications. Rollén, in a press release, noted that “Closing the manufacturing feedback loop to enhance quality and productivity is an integral part of our solutions strategy” in describing the rationale behind the purchase.
Silos and Departments – the Human Loop
As if that was not enough, this is a phenomenon Hexagon thinks is moving rapidly. “Our name change to Manufacturing Intelligence is in response to bringing data together in a way that was not on the radar just five years ago,” explained Angus Taylor, President, Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, North America speaking in a separate press conference at the HxGN Live event. “The next set of customers are not going to be satisfied with how we have done things in the last 20 or 30 years, they want instant gratification of data. We need to respond to these expectations.”
As a consequence of advanced metrology devices moving to the shop floor, ordinary manufacturing personnel are becoming familiar with these devices. CAM programmers are now using their skills to program metrology devices, according to Taylor. Dedicated metrologists now seem to be getting rarer. But their skills and expertise are still needed. The only way to accomplish that is with machines that encapsulate complex operations and concepts with easy to use interfaces – an extremely tall order for an engineering company to accomplish. But consumer electronics have set the expectations, as Taylor pointed out. The smartphone is now the standard of expertise everyone expects.
Perhaps the ultimate loop to close is from the complex mathematics and statistics of metrology into an easy-to-use-by-anyone-anywhere interface as clean as any smartphone.