Sutton Tools technology manager Steve Dowey has a background in mechatronics and SCADA and is determined to integrate the very latest Internet of Things innovation, which, he says, offers great scope for advancement in Australian manufacturing – once a few hurdles are overcome.
Dowey experiments with low cost, DIY technology solutions to best capture and understand the effect of small process changes on the precision and performance of the cutting tools the company manufactures.
“Small changes at the micro geometry level actually make a difference to the way tools perform. So surface coating and finish really do impact tool life and performance. Those things were the focus of the project,” says Dowey, who started with Sutton as an engineering consultant from his native UK.
His innovations gather “data that is complementary, or supplementary, to the operation of the machine but lead to the efficient and optimised use of the machine, especially in grinding,” says Dowey.
“We are a batch manufacturer. So IoT is going to be a great opportunity for us to fill in the automation gaps, and we started to try and do that without adding too much to the infrastructure,” Dowey says, adding: “We had a few little successes with some projects.”
Thomastown-based Sutton Tools, which manufactures HSS and carbide, standard and custom cutting tools, was one of the first Australian enterprises to participate in the “i-Manufacturing” internet-enabled manufacturing hub set up by META, a collaborative network of businesses and researchers, and CSIRO.
The IoT successes included applying Sydney based software firm Atlassian’s, cloud based technology and wiki; each machine serving a wiki-webpage live data and sharing engineering data with remote stakeholders.
Dowey has run up against hurdles though, and says the sheer volume of data that can be generated becomes an issue in itself. The sticking point is not the low cost hardware, but the network side, which is crucial.
Even relatively low sampling rates of 25 samples a second can start to become expensive and the choices made by the network designer are really going to influence the amount of data you can store, and also the cost.
“The main issue for companies is going to be identifying the very basics around the amount of traffic, and what are you are going to do with the data, once it’s captured,” Dowey says.
“The potential for low-cost is very good there and the fact that each machine could be its own Web server serving a web page about itself is pretty impressive. But the practicalities start to hit you with the IoT stuff and the low-cost tools aren’t necessarily the road block here.
“It has been an interesting journey, and we are continuing it. But it is not as straightforward as it appears to be. “
Dowey says employee skills are also critical, and that engineering graduates may lack the required basic computer programming and STEM skills. There is a gap between the graduates that are being turned out by engineering schools and what they are going to need in the relatively short term, he says.
Sutton Tools has a large industrial product export market in Europe and in Asia and focuses on consistently high-quality products that are manufactured with the least amount of waste.
It also uses expertise developed in manufacturing in collaboration with the Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC) in its regular tool making, finding small details that affect the performance of the cutting tool can be applied to other markets.
“It’s a bit like Formula One