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Getting smart with sensors – a practical guide

Author : David Hannaby is SICK’s UK Product Manager for Presence Detection

03 July 2017

Industry 4.0, Smart Factories and Smart Sensors – they are the latest buzz and, by now, most people have their own ideas about what they mean.

Sensors are already well on the way to detecting and measuring any object, in virtually all industrial automation applications.

But what exactly makes sensors ‘smart’ – and how do we best select sensors to pave the way for the “Smart Factory”? DPA asked David Hannaby, SICK’s UK Product Manager for Presence Detection, to give his perspective on a smart future.

The four industrial revolutions

To begin with, let’s establish what we mean by the four industrial revolutions:  

The first industrial revolution refers to the time when steam- and water-powered machines took over production, thanks to inventions like Newcomen’s steam engine in 1712. The second industrial revolution in the early 1900s introduced electric power and Henry Ford’s factory began the first forms of serial, mass production.

With Industry 3.0, in the late 1960s, came the digital revolution, when control and computer technology enabled full-scale industrial automation and we began to focus more specifically on perfecting consistent product quality and ensuring personnel safety in mass production.  

Industry 4.0 is a term that was developed by the German government and first started to be defined at the Hannover Fair in 2013. Industry 4.0 connects physical systems to the internet and thereby enables high-value process data to be gathered and shared transparently from the system level right down to the sensor level.  

The front line

Sensors are on the front line of this fourth industrial revolution, because data is the key. Looking at Industry 4.0 from the position of a sensor manufacturer offers a unique perspective: smart sensors are the diligent data collectors and intelligent analysts that share their knowledge in real time.

We will get a new insight from the data derived from sensor systems. In turn, new information about how our machines, processes and systems perform and work together will provide the opportunity for further developments.

Communications pyramid

To help understand how sensors add value to the whole communications pyramid and help to make factories “smart” we can think of them in terms of four key dimensions.

1. Simply detect any object

Firstly, it’s a pre-requisite that sensors must be able to first sense any object, no matter what the product, or how dirty, dusty or wet the conditions are.  

Difficult-to-see objects, such as transparent, semi-transparent, uneven and highly-reflective objects like glass and plastics in bottling plants, or foil blisters used in pharmaceutical packaging, are no challenge for modern sensing technology from manufacturers like SICK.  

2. Add IO-Link 

Before IO-Link, the information collected on machines was, in a sense, ‘trapped’, i.e. the data was not automatically visible and available to the control system. Then came IO-Link - and sensors were given a voice.  

All the PLCs, computers, data networks and factory nets don’t mean a thing if they don’t have quality data fed to them in real time from the sensors operating reliably on the shop floor. So, you could say that the combination of IO-Link and intelligent sensor technology has bridged the final gap that leads to transparent production.  With IO-Link, sensors can complete the last leg of Industry 4.0. 

3. Condition monitoring and predictive maintenance

Instead of the false economy of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, production lines are looking to minimise resource-intensive, reactive responses and eliminate breakdowns, as well as reducing the time taken for planned outages. A planned and predictive approach to maintenance lowers the whole-life operating costs of the machinery and extends the life of the equipment.

With the control system fully connected to “see” the sensor, you have access to a full range of diagnostic capabilities that were not available previously. Through the combination of sensor self-monitoring – both during set-up and ongoing operation - and full transparency, production teams have much greater flexibility in monitoring their processes.  

Pre-failure notifications can prevent failures before they happen and sensor diagnostics can be integrated into flexible, needs-based maintenance plans. By continually monitoring process flow, faults can be displayed and detected quickly. If problems do arise, the cause can be easily determined with easy-to-use visualisation tools, either on the sensor itself or via an HMI, so machine downtime is minimised.

Machines can be monitored in real time to achieve production efficiencies that reduce scrap and save energy. Real-time diagnostics prevents failures before they happen, saving downtime and optimising product replacement and spares inventory.

4. Smart tasks

Advances in chip technology have enabled advanced intelligence to be embedded in the sensors themselves to make them smarter. Far from being the “dumb switches” of the past, their in-built functions, fully-connected via IO-Link, enable more complex production tasks to be performed at the field level.

Manufacturers like SICK are developing and discovering new smart sensor applications all the time. SICK have a fast-track programme to add new intelligent functionality and build-in IO-Link capability across all sensor types. 

Smart sensor functions include:

• fault compensation for stable and reliable sensor signals

• advanced diagnostics and monitoring through individually-identified devices

• predefined detection modes for fast commissioning

• advanced adjustments for reliable detection

• manual adaptation of the detection parameters for individual application solutions

• auto adaption to adjust switching thresholds automatically as a signal degrades over time until an alarm threshold is reached

• active sensor installation and alignment assistance.

Industry 4.0 enables machines to gather and use data in real time to deliver greater flexibility in production. SICK can build in intelligent capability for sensors and systems to monitor, identify and respond automatically to situations on the shop floor in real time.

Smart sensors can receive new settings in seconds, for example, to enable rapid product changeovers down to “Batch Size 1”. Replacement sensors are ‘plug and play’ because they can be configured instantly with pre-set parameters downloaded via IO-Link. 

From a sensor perspective, Industry 4.0 is all about future-proofing – so, consider opting for devices that have IO-link, or that may have embedded smart functions. Then they can guarantee an open gateway for future connectivity while providing the best, most reliable and intelligent response to the specific production task.


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