Smarter PLC to give the manufacturer a broader outlook

When automating the factory floor, it can be hard to tell which areas of the production line need more attention. ifm has come up with a smart PLC to help with the transition.

As the reality that is Industry 4.0 and the role of automation on the factory floor sets in, the manufacturer has a choice.

There is no avoiding the transition. That is according to the top decision makers, those who are adopting, and creating, new innovation to increase the overall productivity of the industry.

However, amid the wide selection of technologies – whether they apply more efficient methods of manufacturing, or simply record raw data that tells the story of a production line – it can be a difficult to tell which is the correct route to take.

At the top end, sensor technology solves problems with a very precise measure – all varying in their specialties within a market made up of diverse sectors and can often be spread very thin.

The common denominator is that the increasing use of robotics means manufacturers are relying on data more than they ever have.

What isn’t always available, however, is a device that can record a diverse range of technologies, and pick and choose the data that is best suited to the operator’s needs.

At ifm, specialists in mobile and industrial sensors, its engineers have been working on a project to bridge that gap, using a smart PLC.

“There seems to be a gap in the markets where a business would usually have to draw together different protocols of a single network or an individual industry to retrieve data,” said Freddie Coertze, ifm’s product manager for Network and Controls.

“While we are all talking about Industry 4.0 and how the collection of data is valuable, it is certainly important to have something like our Smart PLC that can be used to collect all your resource data onto one central platform without overloading on unnecessary data.”

You can take it two ways. Where a business is using excess water to clean their vegetable produce, for example, by supplying a Smart PLC they can measure accurately how many litres of water is going down the drain, without interfering with the exisiting PLC process.

“By keeping track of that and knowing that they have wasted ‘x’ amount of water, they can then implement something to change that and actually save water,” Coertze continued.

“On the other hand, processing can be tailored for a protocol site, where data that requires a certain PLC can be converted from that specific device to another.

“We actually see it as helping the industry. It isn’t going to take over the entire PLC market, but this acts as a small device from the Internet of Things (IoT), which compliments a maiden process that you may already have.”

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Ifm is renowned for its position in the PLC market – its mobile PLC devices have been running for 30 years.

The new technology was born out of the company’s Actuator and Sensor Interface (ASI), the same gateway used for all of its other devices.

“All we have done is increase the processor and an extra Ethernet port, so that it can speak to various types of fieldbus,” Coertze said. “By doing that, it creates a three-way communication.

“Therefore, instead of buying an individual PLC for different protocols, you can purchase one that fits into any.”

Owning a device like this has opened ifm to a niche market, Coertze explains – not as a direct competitor to mainstream PLC devices, but rather something that can be added to an existing system

“The thing you have to ask yourself is whether some of the data you create is necessary,” Coertze continued, “because you will overload your database.

“You want to access information but you also need to know what you are looking for first and, ultimately, how that data is applicable to your system.”

For example, sensors for vibration, temperature, and flow all create predictive maintenance for a factory or plant, which can generate early detection of a fault before something fails, with the use of smart data.

“You have to identify the value of your machinery and know its purpose, its potential and also its limitations,” Coertze said.

“By identifying the worst case scenario, it means you don’t have to monitor your entire plant but rather focus a couple of sensors in one area that will improve the business.”

The device is perfect for small to medium-sized machine manufacturers, according to Coertze, who recognises that some businesses which have yet to fully adopt Industry 4.0 require a mechanism that demonstrates the value of new technology, without automating their whole operation.

“Industry 4.0 is coming whether you want it or not,” he said. “If we talked about this even as recent as four years ago, some people would be saying that this is definitely not going to happen.

“Slowly over time, we are progressing towards automation and we want to change that mindset and align ourselves with the changing industry.

“We have got a unique solution that doesn’t offer one part, but rather than several parts that can do everything you want, however your factory is integrated.”