Walter is using digitalisation to create added value for its customers at every stage of the process chain

The Factory of the Future is networked, organised, and can self-optimise over long distances – provided, of course, that the machines, tools and systems supply the necessary data. To begin with, however, the data collected is not much more than “raw material”. Using it to create the kind of added value that goes above and beyond optimising a customer’s production process is the job of a team of digitalisation experts working at the Walter Technology Center in Tübingen, Germany.

“The work our technology experts are doing is increasingly reaping rewards,” explains Florian Böpple, a digital manufacturing expert at Walter.

The Walter Technology Center officially opened its doors in October 2016 and, just a few weeks later, Walter joined forces with its software partner Comara – both with the mutually agreed aim of making digital transformation central to the company.

Mirko Merlo, President of Walter, describes the company’s long-standing relationship with Comara as “an important strategic step in expanding our digital portfolio and further developing our company with Industry 4.0 in mind.”

Walter has now acquired 100% of Comara, thus underpinning its evolution from a simple tool manufacturer to a provider of an extensive range of both traditional and digital manufacturing solutions.

Real-time data – the raw material for greater efficiency

Comara specialises in collecting, analysing and utilising real-time data. The company works in collaboration with the machining experts at Walter to develop software solutions for efficiently networking machines and tools while optimising processes on the basis of real-time data. Using digital tools helps the company to develop new apps and services for tools, machines and machining concepts that enable customers to maximise efficiency in their production environment. The intimate knowledge of machining data possessed by Walter experts plays a pivotal role in providing customers with solutions that have been carefully tailored to their machining process.

One of the first applications of this kind is Walter Tool ID, which customers have already been using for many years now. Tool ID makes it possible to clearly identify all the tools used in a production process and monitor them continuously. Tool life is checked and tools are always replaced at exactly the right time. Tool data is transferred from the pre-setting device straight to the machine and the parameters running on the machine are analysed directly.

The tool notifies the machine

An identifier, such as a laser-generated data matrix code on the tool, contains information about the manufacturer and the user. This means that the tool provides information on how to use it in a form that can be read by a machine. The data is retrieved from the server by a scanner, transferred automatically to the machine’s control system and written into the tool magazine. This eliminates the need to enter information by hand, which is time-consuming and prone to error.

The Tool ID also acts as a key means of communication between the tool and the machine, since the data stored in it, for example on tool life or presetting, enables the individual production steps to be controlled. Potential problems can be detected early and resolved thanks to the comprehensive view.

“Tool ID saves users valuable time,” explains Holger Langhans, Manager of the Technology Center. “They are also ensured greater process reliability and they get an insight into the way tools are really used in their production processes.”

As an example of the time savings available, with Walter Tool ID it takes just seconds to prepare a tool for a cutting machine – whereas doing this manually normally takes several minutes on average.

Yet Tool ID is just the first step on the way to developing smart tools and building the Factory of the Future. Comara and Walter provide the requisite apps together via Walter appCom, a proprietary platform that enables machine manufacturers and industrial enterprises to use various different tools and apps tailored specifically to their needs, and to optimise their manufacturing environment.

Practical solutions with great potential

To take their work seamlessly from theory to practice, the digitalisation experts at the Walter Technology Center have five cutting machines at their disposal.

“Each and every service app is thoroughly tested on these machines,” explains Böpple. “We also work very closely with users. This ensures we create practical solutions that meet their efficiency potential right from their first day in use.

“Walter appCom collects vast quantities of data. Our job is to interpret and visualise this data in order to generate added value from it.”

This starts with status information, which tells the Production Manager, for example, what every single machine is currently doing in real time. This includes which tool is being used and how, what cutting parameters are being applied, and how long the tool has been in use that day (to name but a few examples). Users can access the latest live data, as well as analyses and data from third-party systems.

“Networking offers endless possibilities,” says Böpple.

And it is precisely these possibilities that Walter specialists are exploring, identifying the potential for optimisation that lies both in the data and in the processes that users themselves employ. They then use this to develop specific applications in the Technology Center.

In focus: A wealth of opportunities

“Shortly after the Walter Technology Center opened, word spread round our customers that it’s worth taking a closer look at our work,” remarks Böpple. “If for no other reason than to get a feel for everything that digital information makes possible and to understand the wide range of options that digital transformation through Walter can open up.”

One of the things that users in the Technology Center can do is see and learn about the optimisations that Walter has already developed and implemented for its customers’ machining processes.

Langhans explains: “We’ve had customers in the Far East looking at solutions via live streaming – with images from the camera and the data associated with them in real time. This saves them time and travel costs – and these factors alone make it a highly efficient method.”

The experts in the Technology Center also offer their customers the opportunity to develop solutions to specific problems together.

“When a customer outlines what they require, we think about which tool and which machining concept could be used for the job. It goes without saying that, when doing this, we also take into consideration how their processes can be optimised using the data available. We can demonstrate this online too, where appropriate, and discuss it with the customer via live streaming.”

Complete machining processes documented in detail

This technology allows entire machining processes to be broken down in minute detail: Which tool was being used and for how long? Under what kind of conditions? What was the ratio of non-productive time to productive time? All these things and more are documented by a specially developed app.

“No-one needs to sit there with a stopwatch any more,” says Böpple happily. “Instead, users can view precisely the information they need in any given moment on the app.”

The benefits this offers customers are obvious: whereas before they often had to base their calculations on planning data, now the app can give them hard facts about the actual costs per tool. Optimisation potential can be identified considerably faster and more clearly than before – and even broken down into the potential of each individual tool. The extent of the ‘leverage’ obtained from the optimisation in question can be calculated exactly. The efficient process analysis results in higher machine availability, making the availability of each and every machine transparent. This knowledge can be used to control and improve processes with much greater efficiency.

“This becomes clear right from setting up the machine every day,” explains Böpple. “In conventional production environments, which are still commonplace at many companies, machine operators come on shift and look at which components they’ll be machining that day using which programs. They look at which tools they need to do this, go to their machine, tick which ones they already have off the list and equip themselves with any they don’t have. Per shift and per operator, this can add up to as many as three programs with 30 tools each – and that takes time!”

The app developed by Walter lists the tools required for each program at a glance and also knows which ones are already on the machine and which ones need to be fitted. As a next step, the Pre-setting Department could obtain this information straight from the app and use it to optimise their commissioning process.

Eyes on data

“But development doesn’t stop there,” explains Böpple. “We’re currently working on loading the data from our apps into a kind of HoloLens. These networked virtual 3D glasses enable operators, production managers and maintenance personnel to see immediately what’s going on when they stand in front of a machine.”

It doesn’t matter whether the data comes from a standard app or an application that has been specially tailored to a particular customer, as Langhans explains: “In future, the status of a machine, tool and process will be fully transparent – in real time.”

Tool management specialists at Walter are building on this too – their job is to exploit the untapped technological optimisation potential in their customers’ processes using digital means. To do this, they take an in-depth look at these processes and develop optimisation solutions tailored meticulously to meet their customers’ precise requirements, both in the machining process and the tool logistics process.