In the search for ever more efficient automation, sensors have a major role to play

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

Although sensor technology and performance has advanced at an exponential pace during the last decade, and continues with ever increasing capability, the integration of a sensor often only ever results in a simple digital on/off signal. While many applications would find this adequate, there is so much more that is possible by integrating the operation and configuration of sensors into the machine control platform.

With the push for faster cycle times, easy integration and seamless data exchange taking increasing priority, the benefits of Fieldbus solutions are now widely recognised. Simplified installation and machine design, as well as improving machine performance and device monitoring, plus advanced functionality would all be very complex to achieve with traditional hardwired systems.

There are now countless Fieldbus solutions available, each with their own benefits and restrictions. Many Fieldbus technologies are dedicated to motion control or even specific to sensor technology, developed to support the unique requirements of the peripheral devices.

Whilst Omron supports a wide range of Fieldbus technologies, our primary offering uses EtherCAT which is widely recognised as the fastest Fieldbus solution currently available. It is also known for its flexibility to support the integration of a wide range of peripheral devices. Integration of these devices into the Fieldbus network is extremely simple and can be configured with no more than a few clicks of your mouse, providing instantaneous data exchange with the machine control platform. This completely eliminates developing complex protocols or writing custom code, providing fast and seamless integration. Integrating sensors through a fieldbus platform also achieves a high speed distributed solution, and importantly unparalleled levels of accuracy when handling the most challenging sensing applications.

Currently devices such as logic control, I/O, servo drives, inverter drives, and safety control are all supported. More recently Omron has introduced a wide range of sensor solutions which have EtherCAT connectivity including fibre and laser sensors, vision sensors, vision systems and high accuracy measurement systems. These new solutions mean machine builders can develop a complete machine with all the necessary peripheral devices, all connected and communicating on a single Fieldbus solution. This makes development, installation, commissioning, device monitoring and fault diagnostics vastly more efficient and can provide immediate cost savings.

A further benefit to integrating peripheral devices on an EtherCAT Fieldbus is the degree of integration which can be achieved. Extensive parameter and variable data exchange is possible between the machine controller and the peripheral device, allowing the peripheral devices to become an integral part of the control system. Taking the newly developed EtherCAT sensors as an example, with traditional hardwired solutions, integration with the sensors is limited to simple on/off status exchange. This is greatly expanded when these devices are connected to the EtherCAT Fieldbus, as well as basic I/O information, full parameterisation of the sensors is also possible, allowing re-configuration through the control system. This can vastly improve the efficiency of product changeovers, where the control system can batch configure all the sensors on the network completely automatically, eliminating the need for operator intervention.

Due to the depth of the data exchange between the machine controller and sensor units, complete device monitoring is also enabled. This provides immediate feedback of the status of the sensor, as well as sufficient data to verify the condition of the sensors, to detect whether they have a build-up of contamination or are misaligned. This information can lead to an advanced predictive maintenance function, which can improve the machine efficiency (OEE) and reduce costly downtime.

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