IO-Link: Smart Sensors in a 4.0 Context

ifm electronic focuses on the IO-Link interface for the Smart Factory: digital sensors which in the past just returned simple commutation signals or analog values now become smart sensors to access Industry 4.0

by Vittoria Ascari

All new products by ifm electronic, specialized in sensors and control and communication systems, are equipped with an IO-Link interface, by means of which the value recorded by the sensor is sent out digitally, thereby exuding the transmission of distorted values due to any interferences along the line. In automation solutions sensors play the important role of “sensory organs”, and in a 4.0 age as the present one, they cannot just provide the recorded values, but they must provide all the available information. Communication of these data should be fast and simple, from the sensor level through the control level right up to the corporate supervision system. IO-Link is therefore the key which allows this communication, realising the advantages promised by Industry 4.0.

The advantages of the IO-Link master
IO-Link therefore allows to communicate simultaneously other data such as those relative to the operating status of the sensor. Another advantage shows up during the configuration phase, when the parameter adjustment of the sensors may be sent directly through the IO-Link master, avoiding complex settings. The new generation of ifm’s IO-Link masters includes three Ethernet ports, two being dedicated to the fieldbus system an one to IIoT, both with their own IP address. Configuring sensors and the connected drives is done using Linerecorder, an intuitive software which detects the IO-Link masters present in the Ethernet network, visualizing all the values of the sensors present on the plant.

Smart sensors used in metal machining
Let us consider some applicative examples. In the case of an equipment for metal machining, ifm’s inductive sensors with strong seals and high resistance to aggressive oils and cooling lubricants guarantee the precise detection of the position of items, item holders and machine parts.
The diagnosis systems and vibration sensors for predictive maintenance recognize on time any unbalance, wear or damage to the bearings on spindles and motors, preventing production interruptions, machine downtimes and other damages. Vision sensors control the quality of the components and the items. Code readers guarantee the traceability of items in machining centres, in versatile production systems and in transfer lines. Flow sensors provide an important contribution towards energy efficiency by constantly detecting the consumption of water, compressed air, oil and cooling lubricant. Many of these sensors communicate with the superior control system using IO-Link and IoT core.

Monitoring energy in the automotive segment
Let us now move on to the production plant of a manufacturer in the automotive domain. Here, a web-based system was created for the timely management of maintenance, the coordination of energy consumption and the consequent improvement of production efficiency, by affecting a strategic line dedicated to pressing (automatic welding using robots).
Even in this case the strategy adopted by ifm electronic for the line’s revamping included the implementation of a solution for maintenance based on the condition and monitoring of energies. Existing technologies have been joined by a parallel system made up of intelligent sensors, gateways and visualizing and data analysis software.
Thanks to the installed system, all sensors needed for conditional maintenance and energy monitoring are interconnected to the information systems, and they improve the man-machine interface making it simple and intuitive. Smart sensors allow the continuous monitoring of the work conditions and the process parameters. All the data coming from the device are recorded on a Microsoft SQL database, using ifm’s Linerecorder Agent software. Thanks to the implemented system, the client is able to carry out CBM (Condition Based Maintenance) on real time: also supported by the help of several mobile devices, persons in charge of maintenance may receive information on the condition of the machines at any moment and in any part of the plant, taking timely action if the need arises.

A complete path which leads from the sensor to the ERP system
By means of the IO-Link connection of the sensors it is also possible to use the data of the sensors in the superior ERP systems. Linerecorder allows two-way communication among a large number of different interfaces. In this way communication is possible between ERP systems, on one side (such as SAP, for which ifm is also an integrator) and data of the device from the field level, control and supervision on the other side.
Data may be transferred using this system directly to the ERP without weighing down the PLC in the automation. ifm defines this direct path of data as a “Y path” since data reach the PLC on one side and the Linerecorder system on the other hand, as would happen by following the two prongs of letter “Y”.
Lastly, thanks to a customized visualizing, ifm’s Linerecorder Smartobserver software may supervise all the sensors, managing the pre-alarm and alarm thresholds, sending out e-mails in case of malfunctioning or maintenance tasks in real time.
The ifm Group therefore succeeded in creating a complete chain from sensor to ERP system by means of the implementation of its own hardware and software solutions, which ensure the integration of specific components capable of connecting the field with the corporate management system. Processes which are often still manual may thus be guided and automated, contributing towards an increase in performance, quality and availability levels of the plants.

A single supplier capable of providing customized solutions
The ifm Group now includes a new division, ifm solution, capable of supporting the client form project design through installation, right up to final testing. The aim is to contribute to the growth of companies’ OEE, to enable them to be competitive on emerging markets.
“Companies should trust partners capable of studying systems which can communicate from sensor to ERP so as to have a single partner to help them analyse stressors, or stressing agents, typical of their production process and to support them with customized and effective solutions” Carlo Di Nicola, Team Leader System Sales Engineer / World Wide Coordinator WCM Solution Sales at ifm, stated. “Having analysed stressors and defined the business plan, results must be kept alive in real time in order to understand, during the process, which are the advantages. For instance: if we identify the greatest maintenance costs, the main causes of unexpected machine downtimes, and we create a system aimed at reducing them, we can, by means of the updating and constant analysis of the data collected, understand in real time the advantages of the system itself”.
ifm is a “turnkey” partner, taking care as prime contractor of the supply of components, of their electric and mechanical installations, of the supply of software systems and of their commissioning.
At the end of this phase, the cooperation between ifm solutions and the client begins, in order to study the real case and to calculate together the returns on the investment.

Factory digitization in an Industry 4.0 context
Following the acquisition of concerns operating in the digital world which are becoming part of the ifm Group, the company can approach the market as a complete partner for the digitization of entire factories, in an Industry 4.0 context. “To tackle the challenges of the future, ifm will have its own open source platform capable of communicating with any device present on the field, collecting the data from devices of different brands connected in a network to bring them on a local database or in the Cloud”, Carlo Di Nicola concluded.