Sensors the key to maximising production and efficiency

The technology in sensors has shifted to a new level that gives manufacturers more knowledge of how their systems are coping. Manufacturers’ Monthly reports.

The integration of smart systems across the manufacturing sector has the potential to dramatically increase efficiencies in all aspects of industry. What drives the success of these systems is the intelligent incorporation of sensors, so ifm has partnered with manufactures to use sensors to increase production and efficiency.

ifm has developed sensors that can provide a variety of data points. For example, sensors can identify errors and failures in the machinery being monitored, when systems reach their tolerance level or fall out of calibration before these faults cause a machine shut down.

National product and brand manager at ifm, Glenn Thornton, sees a great potential for systems driven by the new generation of smart sensor technology.

“Everything that’s out there is going to have some sort of smart sensor or smart device incorporated. If not it should have something smart incorporated,” said Thornton.

While previous sensor technologies were able to give a reading of a value at a localised point, sensors that are able to provide multiple values are driving innovation by enabling more precise monitoring and predicting machine failure. For example, a pressure sensor, developed by ifm, can not only read the pressure and provide a measurement, but also relay data on the health of the sensor, the machinery that is maintaining the pressure and where the sensor is within an overall production process. This information is then fed into an integrated system that goes beyond machine control and up to the level of an enterprise resource platform (ERP), software technologies such as SAP.

With this integration and depth of data, its potential uses are greatly expanded.

“Once data is captured you can really do what you like with it. You can have it constantly recording and reporting what the functionality is,” said Thornton.

In many cases, when plant machinery reaches an initial error threshold, a local alarm can be set up to alert a plant supervisor.

If a higher threshold is reached, an electronic text or email can be sent to a senior supervisor. The predictive analytics produced by this level of sensor technology enables solutions that reduce plant down time or product loss.

“We can automatically put a work order in. The sensor may order parts or send the work order down to the maintenance department, or make the production supervisor aware of it, so they can put in maintenance schedules around the pending failure,” said Thornton.

Having sensors that can detect and predict when a piece of plant machinery is reaching the end of its life cycle not only enables greater efficiency but allows companies to more effectively participate in competitive markets.

Thornton gives the example of temperature sensors in food and beverage manufacturing. Instead of allowing machinery to reach the end of its productive life and cause a failure, having sensors in place that produce alerts prior to a shutdown avoids what could be a significant cost to a business. Monitoring the temperature of dairy products such as yoghurt and milk is critical for a food and beverage manufacturer to minimise loss and maintain quality assurance.

“When you run to failure, your machine shuts down and you’ve got operators standing around with nothing to do. You end up with thousands of dollars’ worth of product which needs to be cleaned out and thrown away,” said Thornton.

ifm’s products are developed in partnership with their customers to ensure each unique requirement is met. The range of sensors that ifm has developed are designed to be able to slot into existing legacy systems and provide solutions that are tailored to each particular situation.

“We have solutions to improve the existing connectivity and improve current processes,” said Thornton.

While technology-dependant solutions could make legacy operations redundant, ifm’s approach helps customers improve the efficiency and reliability of their existing plant.

“We will work directly with the customers to make sure that we can get the right connectivity from all our sensing technology, through our communications platform [and] into their systems. There is always a way to find solutions with productivity improvements,” said Thornton.

ifm’s products operate on a “plug and play” philosophy, which reduces the number of terminations to near zero and avoids the need for extensive tooling. Limiting labour intensive installation processes eases the steps required to introduce customers to connected systems. Simultaneously, ifm’s products are sold at a competitive price point and instead of suggesting the overhaul of a plant, ifm finds value- adding solutions within existing infrastructure. These technologies are also backed by a five-year warranty supported by local technicians and staff.

“Rather than just being sales people, we go in as consultants. First, we will identify the base agenda, what is going on, and we really work hard at discovering what the problem is, what the issues are, what the pain points for customers are. Once we can work out what [the problem] is we will work out what the solution will be to satisfy the needs, to fix or to improve,” said Thornton.

What this comes down to is not just building a smarter plant, but producing a better result.

Approaching the relationship between the sensor provider and the end user as a collaboration results in an outcome-focussed connection.

“Since we’re in partnership, we want to not just provide you sensing technology, we want to provide you solution technology.”