Future-proof automation technology


Image credit: ifm

According to ifm boss Martin Buck, sensors are becoming more intelligent and more communicative. Digitalisation is changing the industry and thus also the requirements on automation technology. 

In an interview with KEM Konstruktion deputy editor in charge Johannes Gillar, IFM-Stiftung & Co. KG chairman of the Board Martin Buck explains what this means for the sensor technology of the future and why standards such as IO-Link are important for the success of Industrie 4.0. 

KEM Konstruktion: ifm electronic is one of the leading sensor specialists worldwide in the field of industrial automation. Which technical trends are currently driving the sensor technology market? 

Buck: For many decades, sensor technology has mainly provided binary sensor signals for controllers. Meanwhile, sensor signals are used to see how the machine is “doing”, i.e. machine and factory data are increasingly being recorded as part of condition monitoring. This also changes the requirements for sensor technology, resulting in the trend towards wireless sensors. 

What is more, factories can be networked wirelessly faster and easier in comparison to cable solutions. A second trend is the topic of security, because the factory is opening up outward to the Internet. This means that security features, too, must be taken into account in the automation components. 

KEM Konstruktion: What are the challenges a sensor technology provider must overcome in order to remain competitive in times of digitalisation and Industry 4.0? How is the role of ifm as a sensor manufacture changing? 

Buck: Against this background, we are increasingly becoming a solution provider. ifm no longer offers sensors as mere components but looks into the customer’s problem, offering then several components which, when combined, provide a solution to his problem. In addition to the sensor, connection technology, IO-Link master and edge gateway components, such a solution will also include parameterisation and software. 

KEM Konstruktion: The basic idea of Industry 4.0 revolves around self-optimising processes and manufacturing equipment. It is true that sensor technologies primarily used for real-time control are available for many standard processes. But what is it that makes the sensor of the future stand out? 

Buck: The sensors of the future will not emit only one signal, as in the past, but several. The basis for this is IO-Link, for IO-Link can be connected to control systems with Ethernet-based fieldbus systems. This data connection allows a sensor to output more than one signal. Until now, the output has been restricted to binary signals, limiting the number of output signals to one. IO-Link now enables an output of several signals, for example real-time signals or status signals. A classic example are process sensors that can output temperature signals in addition to pressure, flow and level signals. While all this information had been available in the sensor before, it was not output. 

With IO-Link, this situation has changed, and it is now possible to output these signals, too. This development has an impact on the sensor as a component. Another development with regard to sensors of the future is that sensors are increasingly recording machine condition data, such as the temperature curves in the machine. The sensors also enable process monitoring, providing the basis for conclusions on quality issues by measuring corresponding processes along the production chain. 

Another example are sensors that record OEE or quality indicators. Because of all these tasks, we see new developments in the sensors. In the future, we will have more intelligent sensors with more computing power, RFID sensors or sensors for image processing that detect optical signals. But also, components such as bearing monitors for vibration diagnostics. 

KEM Konstruktion: ifm has a broad product portfolio ranging from position sensors and motion control sensors to industrial image processing, identification systems and industrial communication solutions. Which of these sectors is the most important for your company, or in fact where do you focus your innovation? 

Buck: The ifm group is a company in which every single corporate sector is and must be innovative, so I cannot stress any particular sector that would be the sole focus of innovation. All our products are constantly being developed. I always like to illustrate the need for constant enhancements and new product developments using the example of a normal screw. 

When looking at what a screw looked like 50 years ago and what it looks like today, I find that nothing about that screw has stayed the same, everything has changed. The slotted screw has become a recessed head or hexagon socket screw and the thread, too, has changed, although it is still a screw and the function as such has also remained the same. This means that even on such a simple part as a screw, a lot of innovation has taken place and had manufacturers not followed this development, they would no longer be on the market today. 

What I want to say is that ifm has simple products like inductive sensors, for example, where innovation also plays an important role. In this case, innovation is inward looking. The last time we revised our platform for inductive sensors, everything was changed technically; only from the outside they looked exactly the same. In other sectors, however, it is the other way round – innovation is outward looking. This concerns the new sectors, such as image processing, which are also sectors concerned with track & trace quality, for example RFID solutions, or real-time maintenance (RTM). Here, constant innovations are required. And, not least, the topic of software plays an important role in this context. 

ifm is increasingly offering software as a toolbox to develop solutions. This segment requires a lot of outward looking innovation. Therefore, I cannot say in which sector innovation is more important or has less significance. However, in the traditional sectors where innovation is less visible to the outside world, it is still a necessity for survival. And these are also precisely the sectors that are our revenue drivers. As for the other, new sectors, this is where we are securing our future and innovation tends to look outwards. 

KEM Konstruktion: Intelligent sensors in the field can directly communicate with the ERP level via IP. You have coined the term “Y path”, what do you mean by this? 

Buck: Already back in 2004 we developed a sensor for bearing monitoring that made predictions about the bearing life. But when we wanted to put this sensor on the market, we struggled. In analysing the causes of this, we found that while we had built a sensor that detects a machine state, the PLC in the machine was not interested in the state of the machine at all. Still, the sensor sent its signal to the PLC. Information about the condition of a machine is important for the purchasing department because they have to procure the parts, for the maintenance engineers because they have to plan the maintenance work, as well as for the production planners because they have to plan the production break. 

This means that the sensor signals did not arrive where they were needed, which made it clear to us that we needed a branching path to output signals from the sensor directly to the office level. This insight made us realise that we had to open up a corresponding channel from the sensor into the ERP system. When the topic of Industry 4.0 came up and the recording of machine data became more and more important, we developed a switch via which signals can be output to the PLC on the one hand, and certain signals can be routed directly to the office level on the other. And that is the Y path. The idea behind it is that one channel is suitable for sending real-time or control signals, i.e. a small amount of data, but in real time. 

The other channel can be used to send a large amount of data, but not necessarily in real time. To achieve this separation, we have defined the Y path and integrated a corresponding switch into our products, leaving it to the customer to decide where he wants to have which data, i.e. which ones he does want in the PLC and which ones he does need in the ERP system. 

KEM Konstruktion: In the meantime, ifm has also been increasingly focusing on the development of Industry 4.0 solutions and corresponding software and cloud products. What are the reasons behind this and what specific solutions are we talking about? 

Buck: In fact, Industry 4.0 means collecting data from factories and doing something with it. While data alone have no value as such, we have to turn them into information. But in order to turn data into information, you need computing power, because you have to evaluate and calculate a lot of data that is collected worldwide. The enormous amount of data, however, cannot be processed in the machine because it requires too much computing power.\ 

This is where the cloud comes in; meaning that we collect the data with the relevant technical or application know-how, process it and turn it into information. And we believe it is important to collect this unstructured data in the cloud. Having said that, if we were just to stubbornly push all the data from the machine into the cloud, it would not serve any purpose. Therefore, it is important to perform data pre-processing. And that, in turn, is why we are convinced that solutions performing tasks at or close to the machine are important. 

One example is RTM or predictive maintenance, for example of a ball bearing or a filter. This type of monitoring allows these components to be replaced as necessary. The information is suitable for machine processing already at an early stage, including subsequent data compression. Then only the relevant data are transferred into the cloud. Another example: heat quantities come up at various points. If two temperature and one flow value are measured at one point, it is possible to calculate a heat quantity already in the process without having to send two temperatures and the flow data into the cloud. On the one hand, this reduces the amount of data to be transmitted and, on the other, the data in the cloud can be immediately interpreted. 

We are convinced of the necessity to pre-compress data in the machine. This requires solutions, i.e. several sensors and software as well as the corresponding computing power to turn the data into information. The information is then collected in the cloud and further analyses are carried out, the keywords here being big data or machine learning. 

KEM Konstruktion: Among other things, ifm offers an IIoT tool kit as part of its Industry 4.0 solutions. What components/products does this toolbox include and what advantages do these solutions offer to users? 

Buck: The IIoT tool kit covers the complete process chain of the plant from sensor to cloud. It starts with our IO-Link sensors, which are then combined in an IO-Link master that can also collect sensor signals from competitors, and it also includes the Edge Gateway and an on-premise solution for the software and finally the cloud solution. 

This means that all these various components from shop floor (sensor) to top floor (ERP/Cloud), including the corresponding infrastructure, are part of this toolbox, along with a condition monitoring software for continuous condition monitoring, data evaluation and organisation of maintenance work on machines and systems. Hence, we are providing a tool to control many applications. 

The clear advantage for the customer should and must be that these are plug-and-play solutions. It cannot be accepted that in order to analyse data, the customer should be forced to carry out a major organisational or integration project first. The installation effort must be small and manageable – i.e. plug & play. And that is the advantage of the tool kit with components which are well-adapted to each other. 

KEM Konstruktion: Standards play a role in connection with Industry 4.0, such as the topic of OPC UA over TSN. How important are standards in general and OPC UA over TSN in particular? 

Buck: ifm has been pushing an important standard right from the start – namely the IO-Link standard. As a member of the consortium, we were there when IO-Link was launched. I am convinced that IO-Link was a very important building block, making the topic of Industry 4.0 possible in the first place, precisely because it is a standard. Nearly all sensor manufacturers use this standard. 

This means that standards are important. Because they make life easier, simplify the dissemination of solutions, help in connection with plug & play solutions. But it is equally important that standards solve problems. With IO-Link, it was clear from the start that we needed communication without additional costs in the sensor. This gives customers a choice: they can buy many sensors and install them in their machines without incurring additional costs because of their ability to communicate. And then they can decide whether a sensor should communicate or whether it should be a normal binary sensor. This way, scalability is guaranteed while the need to buy different components for different tasks is eliminated. From my point of view, this is a very important criterion for the success of IO-Link. 

On fieldbus level, the variety of bus systems has the disadvantage of requiring a high administration effort. If I offer solutions for automation technology and have to deal with five fieldbuses, that is of course complicated. I therefore very much welcome the fact that efforts are being made to arrive at a standard. 

OPC UA, too, is a solution here, but it must also be ensured that all the various applications can be solved with OPC UA over TSN. And it remains to be seen whether it can be used to cover the requirements of the various fieldbuses currently available. So standards are important, but they have to provide the technical solution to solve the customer’s problem. 

KEM Konstruktion: You have a number of solutions in your IO-Link product line, including IO-Link position sensors or a brand new IO-Link multiturn encoder. What technical advantages do these products offer and what added value do users get from their use? 

Buck: We have a wide range of position sensors: inductive, optical or capacitive position sensors. The advantage here is the possibility to output an analogue signal in addition to binary signals with IO-Link while this does not cost more than the previous signal. Neither an analogue card is needed nor shielded cables and the like have to be used for the transmission path, but an analogue signal can be transmitted relatively cheaply. This is interesting for some processes. 

For example, you could use a position sensor to check for changes, dirt, abrasion etc. in a valve seat. In addition, you can use it for parameterisation. Especially with encoders, it is a useful feature that the customer can also parameterise the encoder. This means that when converting a plant from running one product to another, the parameterisation of these encoders can be done via the PLC. Or, as with the position sensor, analogue values can also be transmitted with the rotary encoder. 

KEM Konstruktion: ifm’s products and solutions are used in a wide range of industries, including the automotive, packaging technology and machine tools sectors. Which products are used in the three sectors mentioned and how do the requirements of these sectors differ from each other? 

Buck: While on the one hand we are dealing with very different sectors, on the other hand there are also very different applications and uses in each sector. When I think of the automotive industry now, it makes a big difference whether I am in the body press shop, in the machining production for the engine block or in the paint shop. This means that in terms of requirements, it is difficult to lump the entire industry together. But of course, there are certain requirements that do not occur in other industries. 

Welding is an important topic in the automotive industry. For this application, the sensors must be robust against electromagnetic waves that occur during welding, but also against the so-called welding beads, to prevent them from sticking to the sensors and causing false signals. And for applications in the paint shop, the absence of silicone is a requirement. This is because silicone causes paint to roll off and not to adhere. These are classic requirements that are important in the automotive sector. 

In the packaging industry, however, you have to deal with very different materials. One requirement here is to detect paper – possibly printed differently – and the sensors must also reliably detect packaging material with different colours, transparent materials such as foils and the like. These are challenges that lie in the field of optical sensor technology. In the food packaging sector with its regular cleaning processes, the sensors have to be robust against the cleaning agents and cleaning processes. 

What is more, the cleaning agents contain chemicals to which the sensors must be resistant. When it comes to machine tools, issues include cooling lubricants. Sensors have to be robust against them or sealed, as well as they have to be resistant to vibrations. 

KEM Konstruktion: ifm describes itself as a service-oriented sensor specialist. What exactly do you mean by that? 

Buck: Service orientation starts with the fact that we have a worldwide sales organisation spread over 90 countries. This way we can guarantee a direct approach to customers. However, the topic of service orientation also involves the fact that we have different sales channels, i.e. that we can offer customers what is known as omni-channel support. 

This means that we visit customers, offer telephone information service; customers can get advice on the Internet, buy products via the direct support or in the web shop. In addition, we provide application consulting based on the ample application experience we have on account of the large number of our customers. And thirdly, we also offer corresponding services, such as safety analyses. The topic of service orientation, contact with the customer, has a high priority at ifm, which is also expressed in our motto ‘Close to you’. And that is also what the customers confirm to us. 

KEM Konstruktion: What services beyond the actual sensor technology must a company offer today in order to enable flexible production at the customer’s site? What is the importance of online distribution channels – especially against the background of the current Corona crisis? 

Buck: If you look at the online shop to sell products, this distribution channel has certainly developed positively. Maybe it has increased a bit during the Corona crisis, but I don’t see a major impact here. The crisis has certainly acted as an accelerator for additional online customer care, because from one day to the next, customers could either no longer be visited at all or only with a great deal of effort, or visits were even refused directly 

 This means that we have invested a lot to maintain this distribution channel, too, serving the customer via video. For this purpose, we have built our own video studio to be able to present our products. Something has clearly changed here, and we have therefore set up a new channel for product presentation. But to be honest, selling complex products that require explanation is not as easy via video as with the usual way of visiting the customer directly we are used to. 

KEM Konstruktion: What innovations would ifm have presented if there had been a Hannover Messe and an SPS this year? 

Buck: We would have presented a whole range of products, but as it would be too much to list them all here, so I’ll just mention a few titbits: earlier, we talked about solutions. In the field of mobile machines, we would have presented a “3D collision warning system”. This is a solution to detect the surroundings of mobile machines to make it safer for people to work in their perimeter and, of course, to give the machine operator a better feeling of not overlooking anyone. 

In the field of components, we have a new conductivity sensor for the analytical sensor range. In line with what I have said, it is increasingly a question of not only detecting switching signals, but also machine states or even the states of media. 

As far as communication is concerned, we combine the worlds of IO-Link with that of ASI thanks to the IO-Link master communicating with ASI, so that the customer can use the best of both worlds; depending on what the area of application requires. 

And then we have also developed another app. As I have said, software is becoming more important. Using the mobile configure app, not only the data from our sensors can be displayed, but parameterisations, too, can be carried out. 

As you can see, this was only one example each from completely different areas, including only one new sensor as component. That is due to the change we are undergoing, from component supplier to a provider also offering solutions, software and data transmission channels. 

Source: wirautomatisierer.de 

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