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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)

SICK sensors in prime position for Industry 4.0

SICK sensors in prime position for Industry 4.0

Sensor intelligence has come of age.  Sensors are the essential building blocks of automated production environments; the “unsung heroes” that enable high-speed, high-variety throughput to operate at maximum availability and reliability.

So what has driven this quiet sensor revolution?  According to David Hannaby, SICK UK product manager for presence detection, sensor capability has developed rapidly in two particularly significant ways: Firstly the development of chip technology has packed huge amounts of processing power into ever more miniature devices. Secondly, enhanced on-board sensor intelligence has been fully-enabled by huge advances in connectivity. 


“Forty years ago, simple optical sensors were ‘dumb’ switches, as a big as milk bottles. Now we can get much better processing performance in a device the size of your fingernail,” he says. “Photoelectric sensors now have the power to make sense of all things reliably, no matter what the environmental conditions, and then share that information over high-speed data highways. By making the right sensor choices, engineers are building solid foundations for Industry 4.0.”

High quality as standard

Hannaby adds that today’s automated factory with flexible, high-throughput production, rapid product changeovers, and high levels of customer-led product customisation would be unachievable and uneconomic without a myriad of sensors to optimise productivity. So, at a time of unprecedented capability and choice, just how do engineers ensure they have the best sensor for every task?

“In our experience, the first priority for any engineer in choosing the right sensor is optimum reliability with minimum downtime,” he says. “At SICK, our expectation is that higher quality is standard. SICK’s Prime product ranges are the most commonly-used by our customers all over the world, reflecting this commitment to delivering premium product quality and robustness.

“SICK’s product development teams in Germany work to internal test standards that set the bar far higher than general market expectations or regulations. Our test facilities simulate physical, chemical, photobiological and climatic factors, as well as ensuring electromagnetic durability.”

Detecting any object

Today, intelligent sensing solutions can be almost infinitely varied to suit the application and are often the result of collaborative development with end-users. So, global operators like SICK can pass on the advantage of their experience to users through the broadest product portfolio.

Because of this, sensors are now able to simply detect any object, in virtually any industrial automation application. Relentless product development reflects solutions to customer challenges all over the world in industries as diverse as automotive, to packaging, pharmaceuticals to food, mining to metalworking.  

For the user, this means finding a solution to detect virtually any object is always assured: “SICK has found reliable ways to detect even the most 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,” Hannaby continues.

“There will be a sensor up to the challenge of detecting dark, patterned, or high-gloss objects. Sensors can be selected to cope with perforated surfaces, with objects at close and long range and even to detect objects through small gaps and openings. 

“Whether the biggest challenge is detecting packages at high speed or miniscule semiconductor contact pins with accuracy; whether it’s a single condition or a combination of factors; there will be a sensor to detect it.”

No more downtime frustrations

In every case, detecting every object is about keeping machines and systems running. Challenging product designs such as matt black packaging, for example, might conflict with machine uptime if sensor detection rates are not kept as close as possible to 100%.  

Historically, adverse environmental conditions such as poor ambient light have also challenged optical sensor performance. Now photoelectric sensors with powerful chip technology on-board are unaffected by the light conditions, or by interference from LED lighting, direct sunlight, reflective conditions, or light from other sensors. 

Equally dust or moisture no longer cause production frustrations, sensors usually operate reliably in temperatures from –40 °C up to +60 °C and are setting new standards for shock and vibration resistance.

Making life easy

With such a huge array of choice, the options for an engineer could seem daunting. How do end users and machine builders alike select the right sensor for their needs? What should be the overriding criteria for their choice? According to Hannaby: “For SICK, the priority is always to make life as easy as possible for the engineer.  That means sensors that are quick and easy to install and teach-in without needing specialist skills to program or commission. Equally, they can be easily adjusted to suit changes in production and, when necessary, can be quickly and easily replaced. 

“The same principle applies equally to mechanical integration and installation even where space is tight. It may sound prosaic but a comprehensive range of universal fastening systems and quick-fit mounting brackets could be the critical consideration to retrofitting a sensor into existing machinery,  or making a new machine design work.”

Alongside the ability to detect any object, sensors have developed to fit easily into every machine application and production environment with a range of housing shapes, sizes and materials and wide-ranging options for cable connection and installation. If contact with aggressive products or cleaning agents is likely, sensors made from stainless steel, from highly resistance VISTAL™ glass-fibre reinforced plastic or with Teflon may be the most appropriate choice.


In the unusual cases where an off-the-shelf solution is not completely suitable for a customer application, SICK offers opportunities to customise solutions to meet specific requirements, adds Hannaby. 

“Adaptations can be made to address specific object detection principles, as well as to deal with the type of material, surface, shape of the object being detected. It may be a case of adapting to integrate into a machine, or for electrical integration, such as system defaults or data protocols.”

Smart connections

Optical sensors have become intelligent, capable of supplying far more than a simple switching signal to the factory control system. Armed with powerful chip technology, more complex data processing tasks are capable of being completed onboard the sensor unit itself, rather than relying on remote processing via the HMI or PLC. Smart sensors can achieve more efficient process control and increase the productivity of machines by taking on functionality that previously needed to be processed higher up in the PLC. Real-time events can be locally processed, without waiting for the raw data to be uploaded to the central PLC program, processed and information extracted before action initiation.

“Up until very recently, the legacy of a pyramidal configuration for central processing control has slowed progress towards fully integrated factory systems,” says Hannaby. “Adding the IO-Link interface has liberated two-way communication between sensors and the factory network. In turn, this is linked by a wider production infrastructure of hardware, software, Ethernets and open-source protocols.

“Smart sensors are now freeing factory network distributed control systems by removing time-consuming communication bottlenecks between sensors and the PLCs. The processed data and resulting actions can be made available for recording, safety, traceability and quality control purposes to be overseen at the central system level.”

The option of flexible sensor adjustment via the automation system is a particular benefit for machines which frequently switch between formats, configurations, or product variants. The ability to download parameters directly from a control system to any number of sensors simultaneously saves time, prevents errors, and can be documented at any point.

With smart sensors, automated systems can deliver additional flexibility, reliability and throughput, as well as reduced costs. Advanced functions that have already been developed include a high-speed counter, timer, false tripping suppression, a speed and acceleration monitor and a time-based measurement function to identify products for sortation and picking.

Time measurement is a good example of a function that IO-Link can be used to implement, enabling accurate time recording to determine lengths, control numbers of cycles, separate objects, or carry out efficient slip control. 

Remote debouncing also proves useful in applications that involve large numbers of interference signals for reasons related to processes or the environment (in systems used in the wood working industry, for example). 

Seamless availability

Everyday automation challenges centre on maintaining seamless availability, reliability and high performance at ever greater throughput speeds, while accommodating increasing product variation and customisation.  Engineers must manage all this while achieving greater data sharing and connectivity between machines and across departmental and company boundaries.

By working with a sensor partner like SICK, end-users and machine builders alike can expect wide choice, ease of integration and optimum productivity.  They can also lay down solid foundations for the Industry 4.0 environment of the future.

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