Sensors star in industry's generation game

Written by: Dan Rossek, marketing manager of Omron | Published:

Whether IoT or Industry 4.0, there are a few technological hurdles to jump before it becomes reality. But there are enabling technologies – notably EtherCAT and intelligent sensors – that are already fit for purpose.

Industry 4.0, or other equivalent terms, seem to be the buzz words of the moment, and attract an expansive amount of focus and opinion. Whilst there seems to be some commonality with regard to the conceptual meaning, what can only be described as a 'hiatus in information' seems to exist when it comes to providing a solid foundation for implementation.

In retrospect, this is unsurprising as the scope of this topic is so huge that it only really becomes manageable by drilling down the topic into bite size chunks. Whilst a 'top down' overview of Industry 4.0 provides a conceptual insight, a 'bottom up' perspective, that takes into consideration the specific systems and enabling technologies, will be required to pave the way for implementation.

Introduced as a concept at the Hannover Messe in 2011 to describe and connect trends across different industries, the term Industry 4.0 has evolved to herald a new paradigm in manufacturing. Defined loosely as the computerisation of manufacturing, it refers to a shift towards self-organising manufacturing operations, with a greater distribution of intelligence towards individual machines and components.

Under Industry 4.0 it is hypothesised that production lines will reconfigure automatically in order to optimise productivity, reduce changeover times and accommodate wide product variations. Driven from an end-to-end array of technologies and software systems, ranging from sales acquisition, order processing, supply chain management, logistics and production management, it is clear that future production machinery and components will need to integrate dynamically and seamlessly into such higher level IT systems.

As an integral part of most production machinery, sensor systems will require a number of enabling technologies to provide the necessary functionality to realise the demands of an 'Industry 4.0 ready' machine. It is clear that the passive on/off operational functionality of standard sensors will not provide sufficient capabilities to support the required level of integration.

Integrated sensors that can communicate with higher level control systems to monitor, configure and parameterise automatically, will undoubtedly be a prerequisite to enable dynamic changes to machine configurations, as described by the Industry 4.0 concept.

Taking the simplified example of automating a product changeover process on a machine, this could be vastly improved through the use of intelligent and integrated sensor systems. Traditionally sensors are configured individually and manually during machine changeover processes based on the requirements of the product being manufactured; potentially this could be due to a change in colour, size or any other physical difference in the product. This can be time consuming, inefficient and a source for manual errors.

However, by deploying an Industry 4.0 concept, the process could be fully automated, being driven end-to-end from point of order and production scheduling through to machine configuration down to component level, even including sensor systems. Intelligent control systems will automatically set detection parameters and settings to allow seamless product changeovers, improving efficiency and eliminating common manual errors.

In addition, with increased levels of integration of sensor systems, the operational status and stability of sensors could be communicated back to the machine control system, via the intelligent link. By monitoring these statuses, automatic optimisation of the sensor setting could be made, improving production efficiency even further. The intelligent link could also provide fault diagnostics and preventative maintenance information, helping to reduce machine downtime and again improve production efficiency.

Unlike many elements of the Industry 4.0 concept which are based on futuristic, unrealised technologies, integrated sensor systems with an advanced intelligent link already exist today. Essentially integrated sensor solutions which incorporate a fieldbus interface are readily available, providing all the necessary functionality to realise the demands of a fully integrated production system.

In reality the sensor solution becomes a secondary consideration and the fieldbus technology is the enabling factor, providing the interface to the machine control system and beyond. The fieldbus provides the bi-directional communication platform to ensure that both measurements and settings can be easily communicated between devices. This provides the ability to realise the functionality required for intelligent production systems - and the industry 4.0 concept starts becoming reality.

There are now number fieldbus solutions available for sensors, each with their own benefits and restrictions. Some fieldbus technologies were specifically designed for sensor communication, like I/O Link, developed to support the unique requirements of sensors. But there are also generic fieldbus solutions which support additional devices beyond sensor systems and provide a single machine fieldbus solution for all common machine components. EtherNet/IP, ProfiNet and EtherCat are probably the most common machine automation fieldbus technologies and are widely supported by a number of manufacturers through an open vendor agreement.

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. EtherCat is also known for its flexibility to support the integration of a wide range of peripheral devices beyond sensor systems, including machine vision, servo drives, inverter drives, pneumatics and safety. It provides the benefit of a single interface platform for all machine peripheral devices, simplifying the configuration and cross communication of all the devices on the machine.

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 and via a single network configuration software package, providing instantaneous data exchange with the machine control platform and the peripheral devices. This completely eliminates developing complex protocols or writing custom code, and therefore provides fast and seamless integration.

Whilst the functionality of integrated sensors is very much a reality today, it is clear that the uptake of these solutions is very much in its infancy. But with the ever increasing demands of manufacturers and the drive towards the realisation of the Industry 4.0 concept, the expectation is that demand for these integrated sensor solutions will increase exponentially in the coming years.

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