Progressing towards an Industrial Internet of Things

Industrial Internet of Things

Collecting the wealth of data created by sensors and actuators in factories is vital to working smarter, though we’re currently only harnessing maybe a 20th of what’s being produced. Jas Singh from ifm Efector shares some thoughts about using the rest. Written by Syed Shah and Brent Balinski.

The last few years have seen plenty of discussions on making factories smarter, often within the context of the Industry 4.0 vision.

Fully realised, the factory of the next industrial revolution will feature six design principles: interoperability (all components can talk to each other), virtualisation (a digital twin of everything in the factory, enabled by linking sensor data to virtual models), decentralisation (systems able to operate on their own), real-time capability, a service orientation, and modularity (components can be switched out flexibly and easily).

Sensor specialist ifm claims that for a factory with these principles to be made, this will require “smart connectivity to smart sensors”. One leading area in the move to Industry 4.0 is IO-Link, a standard protocol expanding IEC 61131-9 for programmable controllers. It allows – rather than just simple, binary information – for the communication of process data, service data and events.

This point-to-point sensor/actuator connection is a place factories – and the companies supplying their automation needs – are looking to as we progress towards an Industrial Internet of Things. It is also the starting point of this Q and A with Singh, who also discusses ifm’s efforts to make this data useful through software, plans involving machine vision, the shortage of “true IIoT products” delivered in the market, and more.

PACE: Could you tell us about the importance of IO-Link?

Jas Singh, Systems and Solutions Manager at ifm Efector: As a company we are deploying smarter sensor technology, using IO-Link functionality in all our sensors, which means a modern sensor is able to provide a lot of data. For example, typically a flow meter would give you just the flow rates or the totaliser, but since the introduction of IO-Link into the sensors, they can provide a lot more information.

ifm is positioning itself and putting itself into the Industrial Internet of Things market, first of all, by introducing IO-Link technology into its sensors. [We’re also] introducing a lot of software to look at the data, to monitor the data, to allow management to do historical analysis, and so on. So IIoT sensors are only one part in the IIoT domain. The other part of the equation in this particular instance is software systems and solutions.

You are actually getting a lot more information out of the sensors than before. The Industrial Internet of Things is all about gathering data out of the devices. IO-Link enables that functionality to take place, basically to get much smarter data out of the devices, and a lot more of it.

PACE: Could expand on your Smart Observer product for condition and energy monitoring?

JS: This particular system gets the information from all the IO-Link slaves using IO-Link masters – we call them IOT Boxes. They gather all the data from the sensors and push the data into a software solution called a Smart Observer.

ifm has initially introduced the Smart Observer as a software product, but we are building on the Smart Observer to provide further analytical tools. For example, soon we will be introducing a module for efficiency, a module for quality; so a plant would be able to look at the quality of products being introduced or be able to monitor the efficiency of a particular machine and so on. So the software solutions are not limited just to monitoring purposes. They will be expanding as well, to provide a lot more tools to manufacturing and general industry to be more efficient.

PACE: To take a detour for just a moment, can you tell us where you see machine vision fitting in regarding the factories of the future?

JS: Vision systems and sensors are going to form a big part of the future in the IIoT domain, if you are talking with respect to IIoT at this stage. Because quality is something that everyone is going to look at in the future – or people are going to be looking more and more and quality is becoming one of the big deliverables of the IIot initiative. So going forward, vision is going to play a big, big role in the IoT domain.

PACE: How is ifm approaching this? 

JS: ifm is introducing 3D vision technologies, 3D vision systems at the moment, as well as working on 2D vision technologies to interface directly with our software solutions in the future. So the data comes from the devices, from the sensors, and goes directly to the software, which provides quality parameters about the product.

PACE: You’ve said that you consider IIoT a hugely disruptive concept. What needs to happen before it is made more useful and widespread? Does the market need more education?

JS: Just to give some idea, it is a known fact that only 5 per cent of the information from the sensors is actually used – 95 per cent of the information is actually disregarded. The data is disregarded.

[Also] in my eyes, a true IIoT product has not actually been implemented by a lot of companies. Everyone’s definition of IIoT at this stage is very different. From my perspective and from ifm’s perspective, the market is still open for IIoT products.

So the software systems and solutions are still – I guess old legacy systems, their licensing systems are old, and IIoT in my eyes is disruptive. It is a disruptive technology in the market. So there will be big scope, and I don’t think it will be a particular sector that will benefit from it more than the others. Maybe agriculture is one of them which looks like it’s going to get big benefits, from the research that’s being done, but for the industrial domain I don’t believe there are many IIoT products at this stage.