Manufacturers are forming their own ideas and interpretations of what a ‘smart factory’ is and what they want it to do for them. But a common need is for critical components to have additional intelligence, enabling machine-to-machine communication and interaction.
When trying to create a smart factory environment, it first comes down to the practical aspects such as overall system architecture and ensuring the multitude of new sensors and actuators will have the ability to communicate via a network.
Industrial networks should be thought of as the foundation of the smart factory. Used for process control and monitoring, they utilize protocols (a set of rules that the system must adhere to) to govern the language, media, and topology of the network itself. By using industrial networks, you can make your sensors and actuators more intelligent, which will eventually lead to better performance, more flexible manufacturing and the ability to integrate factory installations with IT systems.
Communication-enabled devices are used extensively in the modern factory. Microprocessor-based systems provide advanced functions such as analogue monitoring, control, and high-speed motion control as well as data sharing over communication networks.
It’s clear that the shift towards the industrial internet of things (IIoT) is driving changes in the market. Ethernet networks are rapidly gaining popularity. Many of these networks and protocols are specifically designed for industrial applications, as they offer integration with the IT infrastructure, Internet connectivity, and remote monitoring.
Many of the Ethernet networks and protocols, such as PROFINET IO, EtherNet/IP, EtherCat and Modbus TCP, have been around for the past 15 years. However, until now, the prohibitive cost of installing these systems limited the scope of possible applications to those requiring the highest levels of sophistication. As a result, more economical Fieldbus networks such as PROFIBUS DP, DeviceNet, CANopen and AS interface have been popular in the past for less complex operations.
In all types of industries where process automation is applied, we are seeing the traditional Fieldbus slowly getting squeezed out of the picture. This is mainly due to the cost of Ethernet networks and protocols coming down and the rise of emerging technologies in the market, such as wireless networks and open communications protocols.
One relatively new open communication protocol is IO-Link. Started in 2008, IO-Link could be the next significant industrial protocol as it is a perfect local extension of a superior Industrial Ethernet network. It is the first I/O technology for communication with sensors and actuators to be adopted as an international standard (IEC 61131-9). This means that devices can be integrated in the same way in all commonly used Fieldbus systems and automation systems, right up to enterprise resource planning (ERP) level.
The high-performance point-to-point interface is based on the 3-wire connection that has all the simplicity of plug-and-play installation. IO-Link modules use standard, non-shielded cables to connect slave devices to the IO-Link master. This reduces the cost of cabling by a factor of five compared to protocol-specific cables. Each device’s configuration can be stored and downloaded into a new device if a replacement is needed, with no programming required.
The key to unlocking the power of these intelligent devices is in making this diagnostic information easy to access. IO-Link allows for cyclic data exchange capabilities so you can easily send valuable information directly to where it needs to go, either to an HMI screen, a signal light, or a maintenance request. If sensor or actuator parameters need to be changed or calibrated, that can be done remotely—even while the production line is still running—and that means shutdowns and stoppages can be avoided.
There are more than 130 companies in the IO-Link community, which represents over 3.5 million nodes achieved in the field. Factors such as the ease of installation, greater control and the improved diagnostics capabilities of IO-Link, has won the technology a substantial user base. It seems this type of IO technology is a definitive stride towards the ‘smart factory’ of intelligent devices that manufacturers have been eagerly awaiting.
If you visit any automotive or packaging plant, the ‘elephant in the room’ is usually the big controller cabinet housing the PLCs and contactors. These cabinets take up a lot of valuable floor space, but now it seems that the cabinet is destined to shrink dramatically. Power supplies, PLCs and Ethernet switches are becoming more rugged, going from IP 20 to IP 65 ratings in many instances. With equipment such as safety relays increasingly moving out of the cabinet, we will start to see the PLC moving out to the tool itself.
Ultimately, factories will regain that premium space that was once occupied by the cabinet and IO-Link masters installed so that the cables are also decentralized. Both will see a dramatic decrease in cost.
This stripped-down ‘do more with less’ business model will encourage those who still typically hardwire their valve manifolds to make that leap towards industrial networks, because we now have the power to put real-time intelligent diagnostics into valve manifolds. You can easily see if a coil has been shorted or if the voltage is sagging. There’s a lot of information that you can get now that you couldn’t before, simply because there is more intelligence in that pneumatic manifold, enabling flexible manufacturing and better safety.
Article contributed by Patrick Berdal, EMEA product manager for control devices, Pneumatic Division Europe, Parker Hannifin Corporation.