From operator to supervisor

How will machine operation look in the future?

An article from the trade magazine HOB (agt agile Technik Verlag GmbH, Teinacher Str. 34, 71634 Ludwigsburg, Germany), 03/2019,

Over the past few years, the tasks of machine operators in the wood processing industry have changed dramatically. For example, HOMAG saws have become more efficient and ergonomic to handle thanks to new technologies, while other solutions guide the operator and ensure that the saws can be used intuitively. And with yet more developments in the pipeline, what exactly will the future hold? We discuss the possibilities of what may be achieved in machine operation technology in the future with Darko Zimbakov, Director Product Development at HOMAG Plattenaufteiltechnik.

Mr. Zimbakov, you and your team are looking intensively at machine operation. What made you choose this as a focus point?

Darko Zimbakov: Ultimately, our aim is nothing new; we just want to continue improving our pressure beam saws – especially when it comes to better precision for high material throughput.
A key factor in this is to have automatic program sequences with a high degree of technical sophistication for the saws. I think we have achieved a lot in this area over the years. Another increasingly important factor is the interaction between humans and machines. Most of our saws are being operated on a semi-automatic basis, so the core processes, such as the positioning and cutting of the workpieces, run automatically. However, a machine operator is still responsible for feeding the panel material in, turning it and removing it, and for destacking the finished parts. These manual tasks can have a big impact on the speed during the cutting process, the quality, the number of errors, the status of the saw and many other aspects – so it seems natural to investigate how human operators interact with the machine.
The key question here is how to support the saw operator so that the sequences run smoothly and without any errors, as any deviation from the plan can lead to expensive post-production tasks. But there are other reasons for this investigation, one of which is the lack of skilled workers. However, an attractive working environment, modern technology and ergonomic working practices all make a job much more appealing to potential employees.

That explains the focus on machine operation – but why has this become increasingly important over the years?

Zimbakov: The answer to this is actually quite straight-forward – in the past, many companies kept cutting patterns very simple. The operator had to feed an unprocessed panel into the saw, then a few longitudinal cuts were made in a process controlled by a program. The resulting strips were turned once by hand so that the saw could cut them in the transverse direction – and that was generally the end of the process. Recurring sequences were often used as panels were usually cut to size in a package and the series to be produced were relatively large. However, this is no longer the case.
Today, cutting processes have become much more tailored to the task at hand and can vary significantly – it is now much more common for our customers to use expensive and sensitive materials and/or produce customized furniture, so the quantities are becoming ever smaller. Processing such orders has several requirements – for example, nested cutting patterns are crucial for implementing a production process that both saves time and protects the materials. There are also equipment options for the saw that increase output, such as the Power Concept. While this equipment makes the operating sequences much more complex, it can also make them much quicker, which increases the pressure on the operator. Ultimately, production should be efficient no matter what the level of complexity. In an ideal situation, the actions required from the machine operator should be exactly aligned with the saw processes. To make the operator's everyday work easier under these changed conditions, we aim to guide them using solutions such as on-screen information. Our "assistant graphic" has been guiding operators through cutting processes since the CADmatic 5 saw control system was introduced – a first in panel dividing technology. Previously, the operator saw what the machine was doing at that precise moment in real time. With the new assistance graphic, the perspective shifts from the machine to the operator, as the display indicates the next task
until the current task has been completed. The operator then sees the next step, helping them progress through the entire sequence.

How far can and should this go? What vision is HOMAG Plattenaufteiltechnik pursuing in terms of machine operation?

Zimbakov: We can no longer achieve any significant increases in efficiency by further developing the saw sequences. Today, the main factor regarding the output of a machine is the operator rather than the machine itself. How quickly can the operator read and understand the cutting pattern and the handling instructions on the screen? How can we ensure that the operator interprets and implements the information correctly? How do we ensure that the operator can work comfortably and ergonomically, even after seven or eight hours?
These are the questions we have been asking ourselves, and we are convinced that the better we guide the operator through the process, the greater the added value for our customers.

Does this ultimately mean that in the future, manufacturers such as HOMAG will only develop saws that do not require operators?

Zimbakov: No, definitely not. Depending on the application, a human machine operator has enormous advantages over a robot. A human is much more dynamic – they can quickly change from handling particularly small parts or thin panels to guiding package cuts or moving workpieces of all sizes and types. In contrast, the strength of the robot is in specific cutting procedures. In this regard, a robot beats a human hands down, processing the cutting patterns quickly, effortlessly and precisely. Therefore, both are required: robotic saws for automated cutting procedures, and new assistance systems that humans can use to operate the saw intuitively and for a long time without getting tired.

Are there already corresponding solutions that are being used in practice?

Zimbakov: Yes, for example our intelliGuide assistance system. intelliGuide Professional recognizes immediately if the saw operator deviates from the program sequence and responds interactively — it's the first system in the history of panel dividing to have this feature. intelliGuide also guides the operator by means of light signals that indicate the cutting line and self-explanatory pictograms that are projected onto the workpieces by a laser. The operator receives clear handling instructions without having to look at the monitor, so he can complete the task in a much shorter time and with much less effort.

intelliGuide is such a big step toward intuitive operation. So what are the next steps?
Zimbakov: If you want to find out, visit us at the LIGNA trade fair in Hanover in May. To name just one example, we will be presenting a new study on the topic of "machine operation in the future" in the HOMAG Innovation Center. For now, here's a taster of what's to come: For a long time, we have been looking into the other tasks that the operator still has to complete on the saw in addition to just handling the parts — these include maintenance, tool changes, setting parameters for various materials, and so many more. The overall objective is to simplify the interaction between humans and machines to such an extent that the operator is guided through the cutting process intelligently and efficiently.

Is this still a dream for the future or will HOMAG be presenting other solutions for machine operation at LIGNA 2019?

Zimbakov: It goes without saying that there will be premieres at next year's LIGNA. We have already announced innovations in tool and material management. At the moment, depending on the tool and the material, the operator still has to enter quite a few values directly on the saw – one example of this is when adjusting the saw carriage feed so that it operates optimally. Entering data manually like this is very time consuming. In the future, a new tool and material manager will be used to ensure that these settings are adjusted quickly and without any errors.
The idea is that the operator merely scans the barcodes on the tools or panel materials, allowing the operator to access the most important data and information online. An increasing number of manufacturers are storing their tool and material data in the ecosystem tapio in order to facilitate this more streamlined process. The operator can access this information on a PC, tablet or cellphone through the app.

What impact will the increasing level of networking have on how machines are operated in the future?

Zimbakov: It will be vital! Manufacturers of machines, tools and materials are improving the networks between them all the time, as well as those with end users.
This allows everyone involved to work together to further optimize and automate production processes. HOMAG is trailblazing this approach, successfully tapping into new opportunities in areas such as machine learning so that we can continue to improve the process as a whole. This will in turn lead to increased output, reduced waste and better accuracy in the planning stage of production. In the not-too-distant future, our customers will know how much time they need to allow for an order to be produced – right down to the minute. That's our vision.

How will the role of the machine operator change as a result of these developments?

Zimbakov: The operator will spend less and less time at the machine – but being at the machine at the right time will become key. One of our main tasks is to support them as their role changes. For example, customers can install the MachineBoard tapio app on their smartphone or other mobile end devices and use it to view the current operating status of the machines. Users can call up how much longer a production process is predicted to take, and even be informed via push notification that a job is due to end shortly. Another app – ServiceBoard – helps machine operators to observe maintenance intervals. In the event of a service incident, the ServiceBoard also provides video support – this allows HOMAG Service to diagnose an issue swiftly and help the user to resume production as quickly as possible.
These and further innovations mean that employees can look after more than one machine at a time – their role changes from machine operator to machine supervisor. This can give our customers a decisive competitive advantage in times of skilled workers shortage in the industry.

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