Yenra : Manufacturing : Agile Manufacturing : Sandia demonstrates agile manufacturing

The old relationship in computer-controlled manufacture has been replaced by a new "intelligent agent" concept demonstrated at Sandia National Laboratories/California.

The system enables " a lot better decisions," says Ron Stoltz, manager of Sandia's Corporate Manufacturing Infrastructure Department. Machines linked by software being developed at Sandia can request and receive information from each other, communicating laterally as "peers" rather than through a hierarchical arrangement.

"The control software is actually a quantum leap from the usual standard manufacturing automated control," says project engineer Robert Hillaire.

In the future, the software will give people running the system recommendations, advice and options for various trade-offs that may be critical, such as fabrication deadlines, cost and precision tolerances. This information will allow better-informed decisions during manufacture, which Sandia programmer Carmen Pancerella calls "a very elaborate process." She adds, "It's really an art, it's not black-and-white."

University of California at Berkeley Professor Paul Wright collaborates on this development, and is interested in the ability of the system to permit planning "on the fly" to take advantage of opportunities or correct problems that arise. The system also allows choosing between options before the manufacturing process begins.

"One of the things that we're really interested in is to close the loop between design, fabrication and inspection," says Pancerella, who is helping design the software. She previously worked with the National Institute for Standards and Technology on more traditional hierarchical manufacturing schemes.

At Sandia/California's Agile Manufacturing Cell, several machine tools are coordinated to work in unison. The software under development has been linked to a lathe, robot and coordinate measuring machine. A demonstration of the software shows the robot pick up a stock piece of metal and transport it to the lathe, where it is turned into a small vessel and probed for on-machine acceptance, then carried to a cleaning station, next to the coordinate measuring machine, and finally deposited in a finished part area.

During this process, information from the inspection can be transmitted via the Internet to other organizations. The software also works with different computer operating systems. Eventually, Pancerella says, manufacture with this type of "intelligent agent" control can take place in a virtual enterprise across organizational and geographic boundaries. She is working toward that goal with collaborators at Stanford University.

"We're looking for a software architecture that is open and modifiable," Stoltz says. "You can't really obtain that from commercial suppliers today. It allows you to much more quickly and effectively modify the system."

Adds Sandian Bob Whiteside, who is also working on the project, "Information-intensive manufacturing is what we're trying to achieve."

Fifteen Sandians based in California spent two months developing the demonstration with input from university and industry consultants, according to Hisup Park, who coordinated the efforts. Another 15 Sandians from New Mexico provided expertise in the areas of robot safety, programming and simulation; cell control structure; design advising tools and welding advising tools.

"The notion of agile manufacturing has been around for a while now. It so far has just been a vision, and what we intend to do with the Agile Manufacturing Cell is apply the flesh to the vision," Park says. "The product development process is not a set of discrete steps, it is really a continuous cycle of events that feed one to another."

The discrete steps, he says, have been imposed by traditional approaches to manufacture in which specialists at each step have had to guess or assume capabilities of the other parts of the cycle. Instead of requiring these specialized groups to simply take what the preceding group has "thrown over the wall" to them during product development, the new software can provide more thorough information about the manufacturing operation, which can be used to enhance product reliability, Park says, or to build up a database of knowledge.

Eventually, he envisions a network of responsive, well- characterized manufacturing centers that are connected through high- speed data links and can work as a single entity if necessary for either commercial or defense purposes. Within this network, "intelligent agent" software modules can function as well-defined building blocks that easily fit together to control the process.

Ultimately, Stoltz says, the system should help Sandia reduce cost and time for precise production of defense components.

The Sandia agile manufacturing scheme will also include a virtual reality component in which operators can test their control software before machining a part, communicate between dispersed groups, and train users.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multiprogram Department of Energy laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. With main facilities located in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national defense, energy, environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

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