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Industry 4.0 and its implications for sensor technology

01 August 2015

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; passive on/off operation will no longer suffice, as Dan Rossek explains.

Introduced as a concept at the Hannover Messe in 2011 to describe and connect trends across different industries, the term Industry 4.0 might loosely be defined 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 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 is time consuming, inefficient and a source of manual errors.

Considering the 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 a sensor could be communicated back to the machine control system, via the intelligent link. By monitoring this status, automatic optimisation of a sensor could be made, therefore 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 currently based on futuristic and unrealised technologies, integrated sensor systems with an advanced intelligent link already exist today. Essentially integrated sensors that incorporate a fieldbus interface are readily available, providing all the necessary functionality to realise the demands of a fully integrated production system.

There are now a number of fieldbus systems 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 particular requirements of sensors. But there are also generic fieldbuses which support additional devices beyond sensor systems and provide a single machine fieldbus for all common machine components.

My own company supports a wide range of fieldbus technologies, but our primary offering uses EtherCAT, widely recognised as the fastest fieldbus currently available. It is also known for its flexibility to support the integration of a wide range of peripheral devices. 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, providing instantaneous data exchange with the machine control platform and the sensor system. This completely avoids having to develop complex protocols or write custom code, providing fast and seamless integration.

Whilst the functionality of integrated sensors is very much a reality today, it is clear the uptake of these devices is still 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 integrated sensors will increase exponentially over the coming years.

Dan Rossek is with Omron in the UK


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