Rapid prototyping may be the wave of the future but most manufacturing is still done by traditional machine toolsthe drills, lathes, mills, and other devices used to carve metal into useful shapes. Machine tools have been around for more than two centuries, only recently changing to keep time with the revolution in computer technology. Through most of the 1980s, computer-controlled machine tools were capable of only a narrow range of preprogrammed tasks, such as drilling holes or cutting metal according to a few basic patterns. For simple designs these controllers were pretty good, but by 1986, when a University of California engineering professor named Paul Wright applied to NSF for a grant to improve machine tools, the limitations of these so-called "closed architecture controllers" were becoming apparent.
"Our goal was to build a machine tool that could do two things,"
Wright explains. "Number one, be more connected to computer-aided
design images so that if you did some fantastic graphics you could
actually make the thing later on. Number two, once you started making
things on the machine tool, you wanted to be able to measure them in situ
with little probes and then maybe change the machine tool paths" to
correct any errors.
The idea was to devise a controller that was flexible both in
hardware and software, allowing the use of advanced monitoring
and control techniques based on the use of sensors. Wright also
wanted to standardize the basic system, so others could more easily
develop new hardware and software over time.
At first, Wright asked machine tool manufacturers to support his research, but "they thought I was a complete idiot," he recalls. Wright wanted to use the relatively new Unix operating system, which the machine tool companies thought was daring and unsafe. So Wright and his colleagues turned to NSF. The agency responded, says Wright, with a grant "to open up the machine tool controller box, which was very crude and inaccessible back then. And, in my humble opinion, that has led to a lot of good results."
Today, Wright's open architecture controllers are the industry norm and have quite literally changed the shape of manufactured products. That NSF was there when even the ultimate beneficiaryindustrywas not, is "why I'm so enthusiastic about NSF," Wright says.