APMEN speaks to Peter Wienzek, business development systems manager at ifm, to find out the importance of smart sensors in improving manufacturing processes.
An integral part of the industrial internet of things is not necessarily smart devices but instead, sensors. And today’s manufacturers need better measurement, tracking, monitoring and communication within industry applications than ever before.
Smart manufacturing is dependent on the data picked up on field devices that are sent back to the controller within milliseconds, but this data is only as good as the sensors allow. Sensors that are more powerful and effective will provide the big data needed for analytics that will improve manufacturing processes. We speak to Peter Wienzek, business development systems manager at ifm, on how smart sensors are transforming the manufacturing industry.
Q: In what ways do smart sensors improve the reliability and operational availability of manufacturing equipment?
Peter Wienzek (PW): Smart sensors do supply a lot of additional information to increase reliability, process quality and efficiency of the manufacturing process. Some examples include pressure sensors with minimum and maximum memory built-in or overload counter built-in. So the trend is to enable manufacturing plants to have a transformation. As such, our sensors have transformed from analogue to digital technology.
This is comparable to the shift from analogue televisions in homes to digital ones. Barely anyone is watching analogue television anymore, and consumers now want digital televisions. We see this same transformation transpiring in factory automation.
Why are sensors gaining increasing importance? What are notable trends that manufacturers should be aware of?
PW: Sensors are the eyes, ears and senses of every machine. Without this information Industry 4.0 technologies are not able to be realised. Sensors detect the current machine status, and can prevent unnecessary maintenance, as well as help save energy. It is a bit human-like—in the sense that these machines can generate information to find out what is working well and what is not, which then enables plant managers to fix the problem.
We find the term predictive maintenance to be a buzzword. We prefer referring to it as condition-based monitoring, as it is difficult to accurately predict what is going to happen in the future. Instead, we can try to learn how machines have behaved in the past, and try to learn and evaluate from the data gathered things that we should look out for in the future. Still, we cannot ever be 100 percent sure.
That is why we add sensors for example, to detect vibration on a machine. From past experience, we try to apply analytics in the smart gateway. That means we do not want to collect big data from a vibration sensor to analyse the data on the cloud, as powerful software is needed for that. We prefer conducting smart analysis in the early stage which means this is done very close to the machine, and should any maintenance be required, alarm alerts would be generated.
Will sensor-equipped machinery be able to communicate with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems? What are the benefits?
PW: Yes, definitely. More and more sensors are equipped with digital interfaces like IO-Link to communicate with programmable logic controllers (PLC) and smart gateways. Moreover, via automation and IT networks, it is possible to talk directly to ERP systems. Our company has already installed customer applications where vibration sensors can give critical alarms of bearing problems to SAP for further maintenance processing. As an example, before the alarm is triggered when the vibration sensor detects an issue, the plant manager would receive a warning and can then plan for a good timeframe to stop running the machines and start maintenance works.
If the machine itself sends the alarm to the ERP system, like SAP for example, then the system can prepare a maintenance task that can be undertaken by the plant manager. This means that the machine detects the need for maintenance at the right time without the need for humans to be present.
Sensor-equipped machinery has been around for quite a while, even ten years ago, before even the term Industry 4.0 was coined. Even though the term was not established yet, manufacturers were already implementing the technologies. For example, we had customers who were original equipment manufacturers (machine builders) who had remote online access which enabled them to maintain the machines—technology termed as Industry 4.0 technology today. Back then, customers were using modem technology and now it has progressed to internet technology. The technology itself will keep changing but the needs of manufacturers will remain the same.
How will smart sensors transform the manufacturing industry five to ten years from now?
PW: With Industry 4.0 technologies, I would recommend to start with first observing what goes on in the plant—such as software that can perform data monitoring, analysis, and alarm management. This is a good start to understand new capabilities without going too deep into the control systems. With the Y-path (ifm’s solution to a Smart Factory) from our company, Industry 4.0 technologies can even be retrofitted to existing production lines without touching the PLC.
The future is always difficult to predict. Some call it the facebook of sensors, where the sensors talk directly to each other and make decisions without central control. This is the real Industrial Internet of Things—where things like sensors, actuators and controllers can talk directly and interact with each other. This is still a big challenge because at the moment, the sensors can only talk to the PLC and this will change in the future. And this current system will transform to a network-based structure where the machines can then talk to humans as well.
What is your advice for manufacturers in Asia who want to automate their manufacturing processes?
PW: There might not be a need for manufacturers to transform all of their processes. They could take it step by step and it is definitely an ongoing process. They need to identify their most crucial needs first, and then improvements can be implemented—such as where energy is loss in a plant, how costs can be reduced, or how to increase productivity. It is important that manufacturers find out where their biggest issues are so they can create machine transparency. With transparency, they can incorporate a better machine network, which will translate to more available data for analysis. The manufacturing scene will evolve to this but it will take time.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
PW: Be open to new technologies, but be careful as well. Do not change your controls system completely. Use your core technologies and slowly add smart industry technologies. With an IoT-core software enabler, you can bring all your machines, sensors and assets directly to the cloud. Then take your time to further investigate the information needed for your application, and this is very important. Manufacturers should not overwhelm themselves or completely interrupt their current processes.