Taiwan Primed for Smart Machinery Development

Photo: Victor Taichung

The Tsai Ing-wen government has included this sector among its five priority industries.

 

To meet the growing global demand for smart automated manufacturing equipment in line with what has been dubbed “Industry 4.0,” Taiwan’s machinery companies are scrambling to turn out smart models by incorporating advanced information technology into their products. The outlook for the industry appears so promising that President Tsai Ing-wen has included smart machinery as one of the five innovative industrial categories – the others are green energy, biotech, defense technology, and the Internet of Things (IoT) – earmarked for priority development by the new administration.

Taiwan is considered to have a good prospects for developing the smart machinery sector because of its existing strong foundation in the machine-tool industry, situated mainly in central Taiwan in and around the city of Taichung. According to Taiwan’s Topology Research Institute, Taiwan last year ranked as the world’s seventh largest producer of machine tools and fifth largest exporter. In addition, Taiwan has made strides in technologies important to smart machinery, such as cloud computing, big data, IoT, and smart robots.

Much of the early effort of the program has focused on developing five-axis machine tools capable of producing objects in complicated shapes with a high degree of automation. Production of these machines – which are a boon to manufacturers of sophisticated parts and components for the aerospace, automotive, electronics, medical device, and molding industries – requires cutting-edge technologies (including high-precision frames and controller software) possessed by only a few countries in the world.

The project is receiving technological support from the Mechanical and Mechatronics Systems Research Laboratories (MMSRL), part of the semi-official Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). In addition, six leading machine-tool builders in 2012 formed an “R&D alliance for new-generation five-axis machine tools,” with assistance from MMSRL and the Department of Industrial Technology of the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA). The participating companies are Awea Mechantronic, Goodway Machine, Victor Taichung Machinery, Yeong Chin Machinery Industries, Quaser Machine Tools, and Dah Lih Machinery Industry.

So far, the alliance has invested NT$260 million (over US$8 million) in the R&D program, including the cost of technology transfer from ITRI and the procurement of German know-how. The effort appears to have paid off, as each of the six members has successfully launched a five-axis machine tool of its own.

Yeong Chin’s model DCV20 18A-5AX, for instance, is said to offer high precision, rigidity, and efficiency, and to be capable of undertaking multi-angle and multiple curved-surface machining needed for the production of sophisticated aerospace parts and components, as well as fixtures, molds, and special ring-shaped objects. The machine is furnished with German-made Heidenhain controllers to orchestrate the simultaneous movement of the five axes. To assure precision machining, the settings can be adjusted before operations begin through a virtual simulated process viewed on the screen. The machine’s iPros MX smart operating system, developed in-house by Yeong Chin, includes a variety of application software to ensure rapid and convenient operations.

At Quaser, the UX300 multi-face five-axis machining center, also furnished with a Heidenhain controller and Hatler Load Assistant software from Germany, is capable of precision and rapid machining for objects with complicated curvy surfaces. The machine, suited for use in the automotive, aviation, electronics, hardware, and machinery-making industries, is sold mainly to customers in Europe, a testimony to its quality level.

Encouraged by the success of the R&D alliance, some other machine-tool manufacturer–including LK Machinery, Far East Machinery, and Asia Pacific Elite – have also taken action to develop five-axis models. Several makers of special-purpose machine tools are also turning out smart models. Soco Machinery, for instance, has developed tube bending and cutting machines for use in the automotive and other industries. Thanks to the controlling software and programs developed by Soco’s own engineers, the machines are capable of small-volume and large-variety custom machining.

Another maker of special-purpose machine tools, Everising Machine, produces a high-precision band-sawing machine that was recognized with a Taiwan Excellence Award for outstanding quality. Its PC-based controller stores abundant data facilitating the determination of optimal parameters, such as selection of the right cutting tools according to the material being worked on.

Although the controllers–the brain of smart machines–are still primarily procured from other countries, some have also been developed domestically, either by machinery manufacturers or by dedicated controller companies. CHMER EDM, one of Taiwan’s leading makers of electric discharge machines, for example, equips its machines with its own PC-based controller to enable them to do sophisticated machining. The outstanding performance of the machines has won the company numerous awards, including the Taiwan Excellence Award, National Brand Yushan Award, and recognition as a “Hidden Champion,” a title bestowed by the MOEA on small and medium enterprises that have achieved remarkable market status.

For its part, Advantech-LNC Technology, an affiliate of Taiwan’s leading industrial computer brand Advantech, is a dedicated maker of controllers for a wide range of uses including machine tools, stamping presses, plastics-industry machinery, robots, and automated systems. The company’s LNC-brand products, all CE-certified, are the leading CNC controller brand in the Chinese market. What gives LNC controllers a strong edge, says General Manager Kuo Lun-yu, is that customers can easily add specific functions to meet their particular needs. The company recently has been emphasizing its robot controllers, which have been praised for having a very high cost-performance ratio.

Further, in line with the growing trend for “smart factories,” the company has launched the EtherCat real-time controlling system, which is able to link the controllers of various equipment with peripheral servo-motors, input/output systems, conveyers, loading/unloading robots, and inspection/testing modules.

Creating intelligent systems

Machine-tool manufacturers have also been seeking to develop Internet-based software to endow their products with intelligent capabilities. Yeong Chin, for instance, has rolled out “i-Direct,” its version of remote monitoring-and-management system software for machine tools.

“i-Direct” was created by the company’s smart-automation design department, which was set up two years ago and now has 12 engineers. Among the department’s achievements is the iProsMX app; when installed on machinery along with a touchscreen and Fanuc controller, it performs an image-based control and monitoring function. Another Internet-based app permits the monitoring of a machine’s operation with a smartphone or tablet PC. In addition, the department developed a black box that pinpoints the source of any malfunction in machine-tool spindles and alerts the operator when maintenance is needed.

Victor Taichung Machinery also employs a team of more than 10 engineers to create software, mainly for applications in smart manufacturing systems. These fully automated systems consist of the company’s smart machines (such as five-axis machine tools and combination lathe/milling machines), robotic arms, sensors, and automated warehousing. Plant managers can conduct remote monitoring of the system’s operation via a smartphone or tablet PC.

“We’ve been shipping custom-made smart manufacturing systems costing NT$20 million to $30 million (US$625,000-$937,500) each to customers in Taiwan, mainland China, and Southeast Asia,” says Bert Huang, chairman of Victor Taichung. “Along with stand-alone smart machines, they now account for 40% of our total revenue.” Currently about 40% of the smart manufacturing systems are sold domestically and some 30% go to China, as those two areas are where the company’s ability to provide after-sales service is the strongest, notes Huang.

In the meantime, efforts to further strengthen the smart machinery sector have been continuing. Last year, with support from MOEA, the semi-official Precision Machinery Research Development Center (PMC) joined hands with four major machine-tool manufacturers – Yeong Chin, Fair Friend, Quaser, and Wele – to establish a joint laboratory to study ways of reducing the vibrations (known as “chatter”) that can occur during the cutting process, potentially damaging the cutters or the objects undergoing machining. The program devised controller software that can enhance the production efficiency of the machine tools by at least 20%. “The software can also collect much valuable data for use in improving the machinery,” says Yeong Chin chairman Chen Po-yang.

Another advance was the success of Taiwan companies in developing smart spindles, essential for producing high-speed smart machine tools. The smart spindles from Puu Yuh Precision Spindle, for instance, come with various sensors capable of detecting temperature increases or vibrations that could affect machining precision and the efficacy and life of the end products. Puu Yuh has also introduced a remote system for detecting and analyzing noises so as to monitor the status of the spindles and the amount of wear on the cutters.

ITRI’s Machine Tool Technology Center has been the main unit spearheading the development of smart machinery through R&D on machine-tool controllers, as well as on smart-application software such as anti-clash software for multiple spindles and anti-vibration software. Set up on January 1, 2015 as a spinoff from MMSRL, the center currently has a team of 100 people.

“Our controllers for regular machine tools are comparable to German and Japanese counterparts in precision and reliability,” says Center director Chen Lai-sheng. The Center has transferred its technology for controllers and smart software to local firms, and currently is working on developing technologies for smart factories, including factory IoT and cyber-physical systems (CPS), the use of software capable of emulating physical operations to assure speedy and precision work.

Promotion of the domestic smart machinery industry received a strong boost in September 2015 when the Executive Yuan approved a Productivity 4.0 program roughly in line with the global Industry 4.0 initiative. In the first stage, the Taiwan program seeks to develop advanced machine tools for use in manufacturing aerospace parts and components. Industry 4.0 calls for the creation of smart manufacturing systems by linking machines, computer systems, and manufactured objects, leading to the birth of highly flexible smart factories making use of cloud-based technologies.

Focus on aerospace

Lu Cheng-hua, deputy director-general of the MOEA’s Industrial Development Bureau, notes that the number of aircraft worldwide is expected to double in next 20 years, creating a huge demand for high-end machine tools for the production of aerospace parts and components. The potential business could help rescue Taiwanese machine-tool makers from their current plight–squeezed between high-quality, high-value models from Japan on one side and the increasing competition of medium to low-end models by Chinese makers on the other.

Accordingly, the MOEA Technology Department in early 2015 launched a NT$720 million (US$22.5 million) plan for the development of aerospace-related machine tools. The project has attracted participation from 12 companies, including Goodway Machinery, which heads the alliance, plus other machine tools manufacturers, suppliers of PC-based controllers, and spindle suppliers. The goal of the program is for domestically made aerospace-industry machine tools to pass international quality certification and be on the market by 2018. MOEA estimates the initial annual output value from this production at NT$4.6 billion (US$143.8 million).

The program’s activities will be closely integrated with those of a broader “A-I-M Alliance” – A for aerospace, I for intelligent research institutions and M for machinery – set up last year to promote Taiwan’s aerospace industry. As part of the initiative, the Taichung City government has earmarked a 30-hectare special zone for development of the aerospace industry, including facilities for Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC) and the National Changshan Institute of Science and Technology.

During an industrial tour in February when she was still president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen stated that her plan was for Taichung to serve as the hub of the smart-machinery industry, with manufacturers, research institutions, and relevant government offices all located in that area for ease of communication. A centerpiece of the plan is the Taichung City Precision Machinery Innovation Technology Park, which already accommodates some 100 machinery companies within its 160 hectares. Tsai pledged that the central and Taichung municipal governments would coordinate to provide full support for the industry’s future development in such aspects as land acquisition, talent recruitment, marketing, and international promotion.

Due to growing competition and shrinking demand, especially from China, the largest overseas market, Taiwan’s machine tool exports fell by 15.2% last year to US$3.18 billion. The development of smart models is expected to help revitalize the industry, with the Topology Research Institute forecasting that annual production value will reach US$6.91 billion by 2020, up from 2015’s US$4.5 billion.

“The development of smart models is vital for the future of the domestic machinery industry,” says Wang Cheng-ching, secretary general of the Taiwan Association of Machinery Industry (TAMI). “Our companies should focus primarily on models suited to the needs of small and medium enterprises.”

The development of smart machinery is also viewed as the backbone for Taiwan to enter the era of smart manufacturing. The IDB’s Lu Cheng-hua notes that the Bureau is coordinating the establishment within the industry of a common standard interface for equipment in a smart factory to communicate with other equipment and to access the cloud, a basic requirement for Industry 4.0.

Several leading machine-tool firms are pioneering the move into smart manufacturing. A smart production line installed at the Victor Taichung factory, for instance, is capable of maintaining fully automated manufacturing for 8-16 hours nonstop (including automated loading and unloading of processed objects), with plant managers monitoring the operation remotely by smartphone. “We’re now investing NT$3 billion (US$93.8 million) to build a smart factory in the Taichung City Precision Machinery Innovation Technology Park,” says Bert Huang. “When it’s ready in two to three years, it will be capable of fully automated manufacturing for 72 hours nonstop. That means the factory can run on its own for a three-day holiday.”

 

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