Metrology In Manufacturing: Not Just An Afterthought Anymore

A few months ago I went to an event that was new to me, Hexagon Metrology’s big U.S. event, HxGN. The conference was specifically targeted for metrology (science of measurement) with regard to sensing, inspection, QA, and reverse engineering applications – in other words what Hexagon Metrology is all about.

However, metrology was not the only area represented, as the company known as Hexagon AB also has a huge presence with its hardware, software, and services in other industry segments, such as geospatial (GPS and surveying); process, power, and marine (PP&M); and security, government, and infrastructure (SG&I). It was a lot to take in and I focused on industrial metrology and related technologies – sensors and software used for optimizing manufacturing processes and throughput. I was especially interested in optimizing manufacturing processes with metrology because I have felt that this is a gap that genuinely needs to be filled.

The core of Hexagon Metrology’s business is sensing – the acquisition of information about an object with (touch probe, CMM) or without (laser, visible light) making physical contact for purposes of precise measurement for a variety of purposes. For example, measuring quality is becoming more prevalent earlier in the manufacturing process, and not just measuring a product as it comes off a production line. Earlier measurement and inspection to ensure ultimate quality are analogous to what simulation used to be – often an afterthought. Today, however, an increasing number of manufacturers are realizing the value that both simulation and measurement can provide if applied earlier in the design and manufacturing processes.

One of Hexagon’s customers who spoke during the conference said that earlier measurement has made it reorder its priorities in making its products “better before cheaper.”

Hexagon has been at the forefront of creating closed loop systems for manufacturing, where measurement data is gathered and used with synergies between different technologies where sensors and data are combined into one cohesive environment. This is known as quality automation that connects and structures data from multiple sources. Quality automation transforms data into actionable information for optimized manufacturing.

Beyond structural business changes, over the years Hexagon has evolved organically from within and outwardly through acquisitions, including most recently, Vero Software. It’s this last acquisition that we’ll focus on because it has the biggest implications for readers of MCADCafe.

The CAM Vero Software acquisition took place about a year and a half ago and was discussed in the following MCADCafe blog – Hexagon Acquires Vero: Metrology Meets Manufacturing.

Vero develops and distributes software for aiding design and manufacturing processes, providing solutions for the tooling, production engineering, sheet metal, metal fabrication, stone and woodworking industries. Several well-known brands in Vero Software’s portfolio brands include AlphacamCabinet VisionEdgecamMachining STRATEGISTPEPS,RadanSMIRTSURFCAMVISI, and WorkNC, along with the production control MRP system Javelin.

Despite the diversity of Vero’s applications, they all address the rising challenges of achieving manufacturing efficiencies.

The acquisition strengthens Hexagon’s software offerings, providing the means to close the gap of making quality data fully available by extending the reach of the newly developed MMS (metrology planning software) to include CAM (manufacturing planning software).

The common thread that runs through both Hexagon and Vero is maximizing manufacturing capabilities and efficiencies, so the two companies should do well with their complementary roles.

For more on metrology and manufacturing, I read a recent interesting article published in the September 2015 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine by Stefan Scherer, CEO of Alicona,

Alicona offers-high resolution optical measurement solutions in research and production. Its key competence is the measurement of form and roughness of even complex, miniaturized geometries. With Focus-Variation, our key technology, we offer a technique that combines the functionalities of a micro coordinate measurement machine (CMM) with those of a surface measurement system.

He said that the U.S. faces an exciting and challenging time as it begins to reshore manufacturing. In particular, industry faces with the need to manufacture complex high-tech products with tight tolerances and a high degree of automation. In addition to this new complexity, the economy also is confronted with new requests in resource management, as more complex manufacturing means more highly educated, yet expensive staff. Consequently, there is a tremendous pressure on companies to invest in state-of-the-art manufacturing that meets both efficient manufacturing processes and efficient resource management. Here, inline metrology and closed-loop manufacturing are the key to success, especially for miniaturized products.

Both concepts are based on production-integrated metrology, which is in contrast to the traditional handling of manufacturing and quality assurance as two independent processes. Closed-loop manufacturing is achieved through a production ready optical measurement sensor that is directly integrated into a machining center, enabling self-optimized production and an up to fourfold increase in machining accuracy. Where a manufacturer might have had to accept a deviation of 4–5 microns before, today a deviation as low as 1 micron can be achieved. This is because components are measured directly in the machine, and the internal measurement evaluates possible deviations from the target geometry. Based upon internal evaluation, the machine automatically modifies the process parameters for further manufacturing.

In the video below, Alicona works on a smart manufacturing concept introducing intelligent tool preparation. By equipping a stream finish machine with an optical 3D sensor and a six-axis robot relevant cutting edge parameters are measured directly in the machining center.

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Automatic Edge Preparation

As a result of this closed loop “processing-measuring-modifying-processing” users can experience increased production accuracy while adverse effects of the environment are reduced. Important real-time information on the state of the process and product is received through the fast supply of reliable measuring data. Deficient workpieces are early recognized and expensive resources conserved. Also, this closed-loop technology enables the manufacturing of miniaturized EDM components with complex geometries.

However, this combination of automated machine programing and 3D measurement technology can only be achieved via optical metrology. There are several requirements that have to be met. First, measurements have to be area based instead of being only profile based. Second, measurements have to be traceable, in a high resolution and with high repeatability. Third, there has to be a high measurement speed together with a large number of measurement points that are processed. The interaction between machine and measurement is, among other points, enabled by the high speed and high vertical resolution across measurement volumes.

Another option to achieve fully automated production with integrated quality assurance can be a robot-based metrology solution. A robot enables the flexible positioning of the measurement system, thereby allowing its use in an assembly line. In one measurement cycle, all necessary parameters at various positions can be measured. Also, the measurement of one selected parameter on several workpieces is possible by one simple command. Again, an immediate evaluation shows if all values are within the geometrical tolerance. Similar to the closed-loop concept, high-resolution measurements of complex components depend on production-ready optical metrology. An optical sensor that is applied on a flexible six-axis solution has to be robust against vibrations, insensitive to ambient light as well as fast and easily integrated in existing systems.

Fully integrated metrology in production will certainly be the subject of more attention in the near future. The manufacturing industry will not meet requirements for higher quality, tighter tolerances and more flexible batches without making quality assurance an integrated part of the manufacturing process.

Coming back to Hexagon, the results of the Vero Software acquisition are just beginning to become evident, but the reason for it was unique and well thought through, and can be viewed from two perspectives – connecting CAM to metrology or, in a bigger picture, connecting inspection to manufacturing. It’s about integrating these two processes and automating a complex workflow. This is especially important to the overall future of Hexagon. Automation is key, and not just the use of robots, but for filling skills gaps, structuring data into useful information, and continuously improving process and product quality.

The Vero Software acquisition was part of a bigger plan by Hexagon to move its products out of the traditional QA room to the factory floor by bringing quality issues into production. Hexagon is intent on ultimately closing the loop of manufacturing and measurement – sort of a measure/inspect as you go approach. On many levels this makes a lot of sense and may help spur a “design for inspection automation” movement, replacing an “inspect after manufacture” mentality. This is something that is good for the entire manufacturing industry – manufacturing and metrology.



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