Alexa and Siri, meet Athena for machining

Author William Leventon
January 08, 2019 - 10:30am

Alexa and Siri, meet Athena, a new voice-enabled digital assistant for machining.

Like its well-known counterparts in the consumer space, Athena acts in response to voice commands. But it is designed specifically for the plant floor where it can control machine tools and perform other helpful functions for machine operators.

Athena is partly a reaction to the skills gap. For machining novices, Athena can make it easier to learn about, operate and maintain a machine tool.

Developed by Mason, Ohio-based industry technology incubator iT SpeeX LLC, Athena is billed as the first voice-operated intelligent assistant for manufacturing. Like Alexa, Athena is triggered when users say its name.

Athena allows headset-wearing personnel to operate machine tools using voice commands. Image courtesy of Makino.
Athena allows headset-wearing personnel to operate machine tools using voice commands. Image courtesy of Makino

With a little training, operators of all skill levels can use Athena, according to its backers. And it improves over time, they say, thanks to its ability to learn about users’ speech patterns, as well as the machines to which it’s connected.

Athena’s marquee function is following voice commands to set up and run a machine. But the
digital assistant can do much more. Its communication skills are not restricted to those involving speech. For example, it can calculate metrics that would normally not be readily available to an operator, including cost per part and remaining tool life. Athena can also deliver reports, such as for machine status and performance data.

Novice machinists may especially appreciate Athena’s ability to coach operators on various procedures. In addition to providing spoken instructions, the assistant can display needed diagrams and other information on the machine’s screen.

Tasks that Athena can help with include:

  • Maintenance. The assistant can ask operators if they’ve completed required maintenance or if they know what maintenance is needed. Athena can also provide instructions on how to perform maintenance, eliminating the need to find the right manual or ask someone who is more familiar with a machine.
  • Repair. “When something goes wrong on an aircraft, a dialogue starts with the pilot,” said Dan Bagley, Athena’s chief architect. But until the introduction of the assistant, “we’ve had no such tools to help operators when a machine fails,” telling them what to do or who to call.
  • Planning. According to Bagley, Athena can help users plan for situations, such as running out of work in progress or setting up additional tools.
  • Recording. The assistant can help with any needed procedural documentation.

In addition, Athena can send and receive texts and emails. If a 12-digit number needs to be conveyed to an operator, Bagley said, the assistant “can put it up on a display and ask, ‘Do you want me to read it to you or text it to you?’”

Mason-based Makino Inc. is the first machine builder to offer Athena with its products. Available as a subscription service with an initial software, hardware and installation cost, the assistant works with both new and legacy Makino EDM and CNC machines.

Makino’s Athena software comes installed on a portable computer with an attached headset. The software can be quickly connected to a machine using an Ethernet cable and also moved from machine to machine.

According to Makino, it takes about 15 minutes for people to learn how to talk to Athena and for it to learn their speech patterns.

The assistant will not misunderstand an operator’s instructions. “It undertakes no action that an operator doesn’t confirm,” Bagley said. In addition to confirming that it understood correctly, Athena makes sure that an operator didn’t misspeak—for example, by transposing numbers.

“We have one of the top speech recognition teams in the world on this project,” Bagley added, noting that the assistant has been trained in machining vocabulary and to understand people with various accents speaking English. If Athena still can’t make out what an operator says, “it never guesses. If it doesn’t recognize a word, it will say, ‘I don’t understand that word.’”

So far, nearly 50 machine tool OEMs have expressed interest in the assistant, according to Bagley. With what he describes as a universal human-machine interface, Athena can operate multiple machines of different types and brands using the same commands.   

Related Glossary Terms

  • computer numerical control ( CNC)

    computer numerical control ( CNC)

    Microprocessor-based controller dedicated to a machine tool that permits the creation or modification of parts. Programmed numerical control activates the machine’s servos and spindle drives and controls the various machining operations. See DNC, direct numerical control; NC, numerical control.

  • electrical-discharge machining ( EDM)

    electrical-discharge machining ( EDM)

    Process that vaporizes conductive materials by controlled application of pulsed electrical current that flows between a workpiece and electrode (tool) in a dielectric fluid. Permits machining shapes to tight accuracies without the internal stresses conventional machining often generates. Useful in diemaking.