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Advanced Engineering 2021

NEC Birmingham(B40 1NT)

03/11/2021 - 04/11/2021

Join us in our 12th and most important edition to date, as we invite engineers and management from all (more)

Making sense in the Smart Factory

Making sense in the Smart Factory

Everybody’s talking about Industry 4.0 – but how many of us are really clear about what it means on a practical level? David Hannaby of Sick offers some clarification, and looks at what steps we should take now to ensure we have a ‘Smart Factory’ in future, focusing in particular on the role of sensing.

By now, most of us probably have a vision of Industry 4.0 as a seamlessly-connected industrial world in which everything is integrated. Yet, this dream of universal connectivity and data sharing can seem very remote from the challenges we face every shift, delivering on machine availability, efficiency, throughput and profitability. So why, and where, is it relevant to us in practical terms and how do we future-proof our processes to be ready for it? 

I believe Industry 4.0 is already providing opportunities for us to deliver our objectives better – you just have to know where to look. Crucially, I see Industry 4.0 impacting much more at the shop-floor, micro level, rather than a global, macro one; only then does it all start to make more sense to me. 

Industry 4.0 is a term that was developed by the German government and first started to be defined at the Hannover Fair in 2013. Industry 4.0 connects physical systems to the internet and thereby enables high-value process data to be gathered and shared transparently from the system level right down to the sensor level.  

Industry 4.0 brings with it the opportunity for distributed intelligent control, where a greater number of process decisions are made autonomously by devices at the field level. As a result, we not only have new levels of flexibility, remote monitoring and diagnostics, but we can also build in intelligent capability for sensors and systems to monitor, identify and respond automatically to situations on the shop floor in real time, for example, to change parameter settings on a product changeover. 

So what exactly makes a smart sensor? And what are the pre-requisites to adding real value to the whole communications pyramid and help to make factories ‘smart’? To help understand, we can think of sensors in terms of four key dimensions: enhanced sen-sing, efficient communication, diagnostics and enhanced capabilities.

Above all, Industry 4.0 underlines the need for better quality and quantity of data, intelligently communicated and used. So, it’s a pre-requisite that sensors must be able to first sense any object, no matter what the product,  or how dirty, dusty or wet the conditions are. Sensors are already well on the way to detecting and measuring any object, in virtually all industrial automation applications, from simple presence, proximity and distance devices to the in-built intelligence of Optical Character Verification and Recognition systems, and 3D machine vision. 

Difficult-to-see objects, such as transparent, semi-transparent, uneven and highly-reflective objects like glass and plastics in bottling plants, or foil blisters used in pharmaceutical packaging, are no challenge for modern sensing technology. The accuracy and consistency now achievable means production tasks can be controlled reliably to higher performance levels than ever before, with resultant benefits in low wastage, minimal line downtime and better quality control.

Just as important as the sensors themselves, is the power of IO-Link. This is a universal, open communications system that links sensors and actuators at the field level. It’s a bi-directional interface between the control system and the sensors or actuators, connected via an IO-Master. Of course, IO-Link is not new; it has been tested and operated in machinery process control over several years. It has evolved into one of the most highly regarded two-way interfaces available today, passing data up to the machine level control system via standard unshielded three-wire cable which doesn’t require any extra time or cost to connect.

Before IO-Link, the information collected on machines was, in a sense, ‘trapped’ there, ie the data was not automatically visible and available to the control system.  Then came IO-Link – and sensors were given a voice.  

All the PLCs, computers, data networks and factory nets don’t mean a thing if they don’t have the quality data fed to them in real time from the sensors operating reliably on the shop floor. So, you could say that the combination of IO-Link and intelligent sensor technology has bridged the final gap that leads to transparent production. With IO-Link, sensors can complete the last leg of Industry 4.0. Smart sensors become the diligent data collectors and intelligent analysts that share their knowledge via IO-Link in real time. So you can control and optimise your machines and processes and cut down on wiring and cabling nightmares. Smart sensors deliver the data needed for upstream track and trace applications and they constantly monitor and facilitate consistent product quality.

Smart sensors respond to all type of control commands. They can receive new settings in seconds, for example, to enable rapid product changeovers down to ‘Batch Size 1’. Replacement sensors are ‘plug-and-play’ because they can be configured instantly with pre-set parameters downloaded via IO-Link.

So, enhanced sensing technology combined with IO-Link are the first two pillars that make up the “essentials” of a Smart Sensor. Now let’s look at the two further key pillars that really start to demonstrate the enhanced potential and growing capabilities of Smart sensing technology. The first of those is diagnostics: with the control system fully connected to ‘see’ the sensor, you have access to a full range of diagnostic capabilities that were not available previously. Is the sensor about to reach the end of its life? Does it need cleaning? Will it last until the next production changeover? 

Through the combination of sensor self-monitoring and full transparency, production teams have much greater flexibility in monitoring their processes. They can adopt best practice approaches for effective condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.

The final pillar is the ability for the sensor to take on ‘smart tasks’. Advances in chip technology have enabled advanced intelligence to be embedded in the sensors themselves to make them smarter. Far from being the ‘dumb switches’ of the past, their in-built functions, fully-connected via IO-Link, enable more complex production tasks to be performed at the field level. Smart sensors therefore take processing load away from the central control system to the sensor itself. Smart tasks are processed locally in real time without the need for the raw data to be uploaded to the central PLC program, processed and then acted upon. The smart sensor reduces the raw data processing burden on machine controllers which can otherwise cause bottlenecks and slow data transmission through a typical centralised hierarchy.

For example, instead of needing four different inductive sensors to monitor a gearing system, with IO-Link and a smart sensor you can set four different switching points within the same device. You’ll need fewer sensors and less product types kept in stores. 

Manufacturers like Sick are developing and discovering new smart sensor applications all the time. So what precisely are the benefits offered by these smart sensors, and how do they relate to individual devices? Smart sensor functions include:

  • Fault compensation for stable and reliable sensor signals
  • Advanced diagnostics and monitoring through individually-identified devices
  • Predefined detection modes for fast commissioning
  • Advanced adjustments for reliable detection
  • Manual adaptation of the detection parameters for individual application solutions
  • Auto adaption to adjust switching thresholds automatically as a signal degrades over time until an alarm threshold is reached
  • Active sensor installation and alignment assistance.

We will also get new insights from the data derived from these sensor systems. The data and information about how machines, processes and systems perform and work together will provide the opportunity for further developments.

So, what does Industry 4.0 mean to manufacturing engineers and machine builders right now? Understanding the role of sensors with IO-Link helps to make a far-away dream of Industry 4.0 an everyday reality. It’s now easy to understand how Industry 4.0 makes production environments work more intelligently, responsively and autonomously.  

Industry 4.0 enables machines to gather and use data in real time to deliver greater flexibility in production. As a result, manufacturers can achieve a much greater degree of product customisation without incurring significant costs or changeover downtime. Products can be tracked and traced from the shop floor right through production and the supply chain. Machines can be monitored in real time to achieve production efficiencies that reduce scrap and save energy. Real-time diagnostics prevents failures before they happen, saving downtime and optimising product replacement and stores.

So, whether you are a machine builder or a production manager, there are opportunities right now to take advantage of Industry 4.0 capability. From a sensor perspective that means opting for devices that are Industry 4.0-ready with IO-Link, or that have smart functions. Then they can guarantee an open gateway for future connectivity while providing the best, most reliable and intelligent response to the specific production task in question. It’s time to get future-proofing.

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