The driving force behind Industry 4.0 success

04 July 2022

Suzanne Gill finds out what makes a sensor ‘smart’ and what role these smart devices have to play in helping achieve Industry 4.0 goals.

The SICK monitoring app positioned to track compressed air energy consumption
The SICK monitoring app positioned to track compressed air energy consumption

Before the Industry 4.0 era, adding a new sensor to a system would require it to be wired right up to the controller and often it would only be able to provide engineers with rudimentary analogue and binary signals. 

“The globally used communication standard IO-Link has solved these limitations,” said Benno Kathan, chief technology officer at ifm. “IO-Link technology can enable a sensor to additionally provide valuable condition data digitally, without interference and at lower costs.”

Offering an example, Kathan pointed to sensors used to measure process pressure, flow or level which today can also provide temperature, device data and events using the sensor’s self-diagnostic capabilities. Having a better overview of the machine and the process plays an important role in helping increase the performance and availability of systems.

Kathan goes on to point out that IO-Link sensors can be configured to provide optimally prepared process information. For example, vibration diagnostics are made possible by recording an event-triggered raw data (BLOB) in the sensor and forwarding it via IO-Link for in-depth analysis. Easily retrofittable wireless solutions – also working autonomously in a mesh network – are also important for optimising existing systems.

“In order to make these advantages controllable and functional for the user, it is more important than ever to see the smart sensor as a component of a smart overall system,” continued Kathan. “Different industry requirements demand high flexibility regarding horizontal and vertical integration. The Y path of modern IO-Link sensors and IO-Link masters helps with this. One signal path goes to the controller as usual and is typically not changed after set-up. The second path of the Y is flexibly available for all Industry 4.0 topics and can be integrated into modern software applications. Through predictive maintenance, energy monitoring, performance indicators, cloud connection and much more, additional efficiency can be generated with little effort and in seamless coexistence with the conventional control world.”

Kathan believes that today’s sensing solution providers need to be able to offer a complete portfolio of hardware, software and services in order to transfer the smart sensor data from the machine to the target systems in a simple and application-oriented manner. ifm, for example, offers an IIoT platform that covers all areas – from sensor parameter setting and device management to data analysis and processing – making the complexity of modern infrastructures more easy to manage. “Thanks to no-code configuration wizards and graphical modelling tools for data flows, no in-depth user knowledge is required – which is just pretty smart,” concludes Kathan.

A window to data
Explaining exactly what he believes makes a sensor a ‘smart sensor’ Seb Strutt, senior product manager at SICK UK, said: “Technology advances in both hardware and software have enabled advanced intelligence to be embedded into the sensors themselves. The use of smart sensors is already well established and their in-built processing power is enabling more complex production tasks to be performed at the field level while reducing the raw data processing burden on machine controllers.  Smart sensors also open a window to data right at the heart of machines.”

In the age of digital transformation, sensors have become intelligent tools which can help manage engineering and business processes. “Each sensor produces data as a raw material and it is then the task of the engineer to interpret the data and use it to add business value,” continued Strutt. “Our customers no longer simply ask us to help them solve classic automation problems. They also want to know how to make the most of all this data and how they can make the best use of it to make a product, machine or process more available, responsive and ultimately more profitable.”

The vision of Industry 4.0 is to make information from, and about, all the devices on a machine transparently available 24-hours a day, to monitor digital representations of all assets and manipulate and control all that data using a real-time virtual environment. 

Strutt went on to explain that many of these digital interventions can happen without the need for any changes to production infrastructure and without interfering with existing machinery and controls. “Simply bolt on the sensors, then an IIoT gateway transmits the digitalised data to a cloud-based software platform or higher-level management system, where it can be easily visualised in real time from any device,” said Strutt. ”Key parameters to be monitored in real-time, and predictions can be made. Of course, the data generated by the sensors will vary according to the application. The business value of this may be to better anticipate customer demand or the needs of the supply chain, to inform more efficient production processes or, ultimately, to make operations more agile and adaptable.”

Offering an example of the benefits of smart sensor technology Strutt pointed to a SICK customer who wanted to find out if, where, and by how much, compressed air leakage was leading to wasted energy costs across the production facility. How could the energy loss be identified and prevented without frequent, costly external assessments? 

SICK deployed its smart flowmeters at strategic points around the plant together with a data collector gateway to collect and pre-process the desired data. The data is visualised using a specially-developed monitoring app which presents a range of key parameters and trends using graphics that are easy to use and interpret. “The system provides continuous, real-time energy monitoring of compressed air, and enables pre-set alerts, alarms and maintenance recommendations to be set up. As a result, for example, the peak loads on multiple compressors can be adjusted in real time to minimise energy demand and the start-up and shutdown management of processes and machines can be made more efficient,” concluded Strutt.

Connecting and interacting
According to Anand Vishnubhotla, chief product officer at Honeywell Connected Industrial, smart devices are some of the most important drivers behind Industry 4.0 and devices are typically made smart if they can connect or interact with other smart devices and users. “Two enablers make them smart – the embedding of smart sensors to collect and share inputs, along with the ability to connect to other devices or networks,” he said.
Smart sensors generally are able to measure attributes such as pressure, proximity, heat, light, capacity, balance or velocity. The sensors might include transducers for analysing pressure, thermal readers to record light, temperature gauges to measure heat, along with accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers to analyse proximity, balance and velocity. “They can usually transmit signals to other devices with smart connections through wireless protocols such as Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi, LiFi, or 5G. They may also integrate with cloud computing systems for quick and powerful processing,” continued Vishnubhotla.

He went on to say that, for the industrial sector, smart sensors and devices form a key element of IIoT. The industrial workplace typically involves manufacturing or processing facilities using smart sensors as part of industrial IoT devices. “They are not only able to collect information from industrial processes, but are also capable of processing that data, and making decisions using machine learning algorithms,” said Vishnubhotla. “Smart sensors might monitor processes and even automate process controls by making adjustments to them in order achieve optimal output, quality and safety goals. For example, they can monitor pressure to ensure pipelines don’t leak or adjust temperatures to make sure equipment doesn’t overheat.”

A crucial role
Tim-Peter Henrichs, marketing director at Yokogawa Europe B.V. points out that sensors, in industrial applications, play the same crucial role as sensory organs in the human body. He said: “Process industries have a cluster of machines or systems and interconnected devices that depend heavily on sensors for their proper functioning. Sensors, networked within the process flow, have a continuous job of detecting, measuring, and transmitting electrical signals for any changes in their physical environment. The electrical signals are transmitted to a control system which processes the data and directs the process further.

“Todays smart sensors can deliver much more than the condition of the equipment, controlling it in a better way. They supply diagnostic data, next to the process data as well, preventing the occurrence of unexpected issues. In comparison, as a human, by not getting information from our sensory organs, we can get into difficult or dangerous situations, for example, not being able to run in a dangerous circumstance, or not quickly dropping a hot object.”

Henrichs believes that, with the constant evolution of sensing technologies, new opportunities are arising for companies are willing to actively embrace the digital transformation process. 

Traditionally, maintenance staff would have performed measurements with a portable device in operator rounds and writing down the results on paper. Today, sensors keep monitoring the health of plant equipment and data can be easily obtained online. “These smart sensors help reduce the workload of operator rounds, periodical inspection and maintenance. They quantify and visualise inspection results and stabilise inspection quality,” continued Henrichs. “As a result, it is possible to obtain a comprehensive view of plant conditions and invest efficiently in equipment maintenance in order of prioritise the elimination of risk. By combining AI, machine learning and the cloud, the sensors can improve the efficiency of operation, detect signs of abnormality, and predict the possibility of equipment failure.”

Making sense
While the idea of smart devices is not new, what is new is the proliferation of smart devices being utilised in the manufacturing sector. In recent years the Internet of Things (IoT) has taken off in the industrial world and today the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is changing the way companies create, manufacture, and support products. “Operators need more information from their machines and production processes to make better real-time decisions, ensure machines are working within acceptable parameters, forecast potential downtime, and improve efficiency,” said Steve Biegacki, group managing director at FDT.

Biegacki explained that industrial smart devices are essential components for smart machines and are the foundation for capturing operational data. The factory floor can be made up of thousands of smart devices from many different vendors. FDT is a universal integration standard that allows devices to connect and communicate by seamlessly integrating all industrial networks into one project view. FDT is a widely embedded system and device software solution delivering a single user interface supporting field/skid to cloud integration, configuration, and monitoring. 

FDT Unified Environment (UE) – based on the FDT 3.0 standard – enables a data-centric distributive environment with a uniform interface for universal device integration. A smart device’s rich and robust data, available through FDT 3.0 Device Type Managers (DTMs), helps users realise the benefits of digital transformation, which include more effective and efficient predictive maintenance and intelligent monitoring with NE 107 status symbols, and enhanced decision-making capabilities based on machine and process analytics. 

Scalable from skid to enterprise cloud level, FDT enables users to securely access device data across the enterprise without the need for PLC/DCS host intervention. It supports all wireless mobile platforms for increased productivity and flexibility, and fully enables secure remote access of all functions.

According to Biegacki this unifying technology standard for industrial automation unlocks universal device integration for design, operation, and maintenance in process, discrete, and hybrid applications. FDT enables robust convergence of Operations Technology (OT) and Information Technology (OT) to eliminate inefficiencies and barriers to interoperability. Smart devices improve the ability to manage operations from anywhere, at any time. Like those smart devices, the mobility of FDT creates more secure smart devices, improves workflow for plant workers, and enhances maintenance efficiency. 

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