The 10,000th model of NUM's new-generation CNC kernel, Flexium, has been produced. This major milestone has been achieved within just three years from launch - marking a spectacular success for a mid-level CNC provider that serves mainly specialized machine tool builders.
"Machinery OEMs tend to be very conservative in introducing new technology, and we anticipated that volume sales of our new CNC kernel would not kick-in until typically years four to five of its lifespan," says Peter von Rueti, CEO of NUM. "2011 proved us wrong. We're one of the longest-established CNC companies and we have never seen such a rapid design-in. Annual sales of Flexium have even overtaken those of our previous-generation CNC kernel, Axium, which controls machine tools produced by dozens of world-leading OEMs."
NUM started shipping the Flexium platform in 2008. NUM attributes its rapid success to both performance and business factors.
For some OEMs it's the power of Flexium's soft PLC controller that attracts. For most though, it's the scalability feature of the platform, which allows it to be applied economically to small machines with up to five axes and spindles, or much larger machines with up to 200 axes. These attributes mean that machine tool OEMs are able to use the same control system across their complete range of machine designs - greatly reducing the workload on the engineering development team.
Another aspect of the CNC kernel's success is related to the rise of Asian markets, and the particular way in which NUM works with clients. A partnership ethos has always been at the heart of NUM's business philosophy. This is proving particularly advantageous in Asia where NUM's willingness to provide young machine tool OEMs with in-depth engineering support on aspects such as writing software and tuning machines has won significant new customers.
"Being able to use the same CNC to power a complete range of machines gives a large payback, and today over half of our leading customers have made that choice and use our CNC platform exclusively," adds von Rueti. "The machine tool market has an enormous middle ground of specialized OEMs who build machines in annual quantities measured in tens to hundreds. A typical engineering department at these machine builders might number just five to 10 people. For this level of company, using one universal CNC platform can easily save the cost of employing one or two additional engineers"
Software savings are becoming even more critical as the role of software in machinery design continues to expand. Twenty to thirty years ago software accounted for as little as just 5% of a machine's cost. NUM thinks the value of software deployed in the average machine tool today has risen to the 10-20% range, and the machine's electronics, engineering and software combined count for well over 50%. Being able to maintain just one PLC, and one user interface dramatically reduces the workload on busy engineering departments, and allows both faster deployment of new features to customers, and a simpler means for an OEM to create unique 'look and feel' branding.
"With the rapid rise of Asian and Latin American economies, competition in the machine tool sector is getting more intense, and we view control and user interface software as playing a critical role in adding value and differentiating a company's branding," adds von Rueti. "Making it easier for machine builders to adopt one universal CNC platform and software system was a key factor behind the development of Flexium, and we are expecting this capability to continue driving higher than average growth over the next 5 to 10 years."
There are two distinct segments in today's CNC marketplace: three 'tier one' suppliers that account for most of the high volume manufacturers of common machinery types such as mills, and a larger group of middle ranking vendors - including NUM - that serve mainly smaller volume and specialist machine builders. NUM believes that this market is on the verge of a shake up: over the next decade many machine builders will gravitate towards those vendors providing much richer software tools and support. The success of the Flexium platform is already proving this to be the case, and it has brought NUM into direct competition with the highest volume suppliers - especially in the Asian market.
Two versions of the Flexium CNC kernel provide economic solutions for different sizes of machine. Flexium 6 is cost-optimized for standalone machines with up to five motion axes and spindles. The more powerful Flexium 68 handles up to 32 interpolated axes, divided into as many as eight coordinated groups. If more axes are required, to support very large equipment projects such as a multi-cell production line, Flexium 68s may be interconnected using a real-time Ethernet link. This allows the Flexium 68 system to be expanded to control over 200 interpolated axes, as well as further positioning axes and I/O. Software flexibility is at the core of Flexium. The platform gives machine tool OEMs complete control over the look and feel of the machine. The system's PLC is programmed according to IEC 61131-3 standards, and offers a choice of development software, providing machine control programming environment in forms to suit individual programmers. Flexium's man-machine interface is also completely adaptable, and can be easily programmed using standard tools such as HTML, Java Script, or one of the PC-based rapid software development environments. This flexibility, which allows users to add their own unique 'look and feel' branding to each machine, is in stark contrast with some competitive platforms, which have fixed user interfaces that may only be modified by the vendor. NUM's long-established range of drives and motors complement Flexium with a motion control capability that is highly optimized for machine tool applications.