The 20th Anniversary of ToolsUnited

CCA: ToolsUnited was born in 2001. How did it come about?

GM: Through an order from the Ford Motor Company in Detroit in 1999. We were “discovered” while Ford was looking for a software company that could create a “Common Global Tooling Catalog”.

CCA: How did the Americans come across CIMSOURCE?

GM: That Ford searched around Aachen at all, we owe to the excellent reputation of RWTH Aachen University and especially the Chair for production technology and machine tools WZL. CIMSOURCE was a spin-off of that institute back in 1987.
Technically we qualified as prospective software supplier with our “old” CIMSOURCE professional tool database, which was available on CD ROM since 1995. The Ford experts were impressed by the “cross-vendor data structure” and the possibility to search from the user perspective. “If you’ve managed that, you can also build such a database for us,” was Ford’s conclusion after the extensive technology audit.

CCA: Cross-vendor data structure?

GM: The history of ToolsUnited is also the history of Standard OpenBase, or StOB for short. Already in the heyday of “Computer Integrated Manufacturing” (CIM) at the end of the 1980s, it was clear that it would not work without standards.

Four tool manufacturers and CIMSOURCE joined forces a project labelled “cross-company tool database” at RWTH Aachen University in-order-to enable the seamless data exchange in the CNC process chain. The first version of StOB as a data format was published in 1995.

CCA: So the roots of ToolsUnited go back to the CIM era?

GM: Exactly, we carry “CIM” in our name. CIMSOURCE stands for “the source for CIM”. And yes, this quickly makes people suspicious that they might deal with a company that lives in the past, as “CIM” is considered a failure. But here we get back to Ford, Henry Ford to be precise who said: “You find many more people who gave up than those who failed.”

CCA: But was “CIM” not made obsolete by the concepts for the digital factory, Industry 4.0 and digitization in general?

GM: At the time, the StOB was based on the concept that each tool manufacturer would store its product data in a database. This “database” shall be converted into an open data structure (“open base”). IT systems (CAM, tool management, simulation) can access this open data structure. In order to keep the effort for this low, the open data structure should be a standard data format (“standard open base”).

“CIMSOURCE Professional” was the embodiment of StOB in 1995, that is the practical implementation in a publicly accessible database. This principle is old and current at the same time. Interfaces in Industry 4.0 applications, especially the IoT platforms, follow this principle. The structure of the database at the tool manufacturer is now called digitization, the conversion to standard formats is called “mapping”, and StOB is now implemented as Software as a Service in ToolsUnited.

CCA: Can you say that CIMSOURCE sets the standard for tool data exchange with StOB?

GM: In our opinion, it is a major misunderstanding that there would one day be “the” standard. There will always be “dialects”, there will always be new requirements due to technical progress.

For every practical application, nuances must always be taken into account and detailed adjustments must be made. With ToolsUnited we offer a “managed service” to build a stable bridge between floating banks.

CCA: What exactly does “managed service” mean in relation to standardization?

GM: We focus on harmonizing the standards relevant to the metal cutting industry. Because it’s not just about the CNC process chain with the many sophisticated CAM systems, it’s also about el-commerce. We take the different user perspectives into account so that we can live up to our promise that “every tool manufacturer and every CAM provider only has to convert it’s data only once”.

CCA: Where do you see the greatest challenges in the future?


a. Technically, the integration of CAM systems is always a challenge. Standardization and CAM don’t seem to go well together.

b. Keeping standardization on track. We observe that at regular intervals somebody comes up with the idea that standardization is getting too complicated, and proposes to make it very easy. And if this “somebody” has a certain threshold relevance in the market, the initiative may run for 2-5 years. Then they end up in the thicket of details and nothing becomes easy.

c. A cooperation of trust is always a challenge. ToolsUnited is only possible through cross-competitive cooperation between tool manufacturers and software providers. To overcome the reluctance to cooperate, we promote our believe that the capability to share tool data digitally is a necessary competitive condition. But no more than that.

Like on the football field. On first sight, all players look alike. Team jersey, helmet, cleats etc. But in every team jersey there is an individual with special strengths and weaknesses. These characteristics decide who is set up for the next game, who plays which position.

CCA: And how will ToolsUnited develop in the future?

GM: First and foremost, internationalization. And with that, the integration of distributors. And as prospective partners for the CAM-channel, machine tool companies will gain in importance.

Following the trend towards direct communication, ToolsUnited as a platform will move to the background. The tool manufacturers will exchange data directly with their customers via a “myToolsUnited”, who will use a so-called “ToolLink” portal for this purpose. The tool manufacturers will not only have control of where and which data is provided. With the help of aggregated WebAnalytics Cockpits each manufacturer will be in control of the meta data that the web-traffic and the downloads generate. All within the limits of the national “Privacy Laws”, of course.

CCA: Thank you very much and good luck for the future!

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