By now it is clear that manufacturing is getting digitized – meaning that an increasing amount of data is being collected during any manufacturing process and this data is increasingly being analyzed to optimize efficiency, utilization, and even to generate new streams of business.
As market research firm ARC says, “The move to digitization has been sold, at least in part, based on the possibility of significantly improving or transforming the business. About half of the respondents see opportunities for new business models and revenue streams, as well as opportunities for improving business responsiveness and agility.”1
This digitization goes by many names – industrial IoT, Industrie 4.0 (a term coined in Germany), and industrial internet (favored by GE). But, in large part, these refer to the same promise of making manufacturing smarter and more agile by imbibing within the flow the digital smarts that we so take for granted in other spheres. In fact, just recently, Industrial Internet Consortium and Platform Industrie 4.0 have started working collaboratively. In late 2017 they published a joint whitepaper that details how their reference architectures are aligned.2
Far more important than the name is the fact that there is a massive amount of data in a manufacturing process that can be harnessed to achieve very substantial goals – predict faults, optimize equipment lifetimes, derive new revenue streams, and even optimize the production process to better align with market needs. But, first, all of this data needs to be captured and then it must be brought out to be analyzed. Finally, there must be a feedback path to optimize the edge devices and the controllers to fine-tune the manufacturing process in response to the data analysis.
Collecting, formatting, and using this vast amount of data is driving a sea change in industrial automation system design. At the most basic level we are witnessing dramatic miniaturization coupled with increasing levels of edge processing across the spectrum of industrial automation systems. This has implications on system architectures as well as the component specifications within next-generation industrial automation systems. This article looks at some of these system design trends and also shows examples of how some of this miniaturization coupled with increasing intelligent processing can be achieved.
Development and availability of the next generation of high-performance, yet small and rugged automation systems is the key to building out or upgrading to a digital manufacturing facility – or, in other words, realizing the industrial IoT vision.
Industrial IoT Demands Tiny, Connected Sensors
Data collected from the edge sensors and from the controllers is the lifeblood of any digital factory. No existing assembly lines will be replaced – instead, edge sensors that are small, smart, and connected will have to be developed to fit within the existing assembly line.
As shown in Figure 1, small sensor systems are required that will have to not only collect the information but also do some processing in real time to clean the data that must be delivered via standard communication links. Also, these sensors will have to be tiny so that they can unobtrusively fit within the existing manufacturing flow.3
Small sensor systems collect data and also perform real-time data processing (Photo courtesy of SICK AG).
This steady downward mark of a system’s form factor has been going on for many years now and is accelerating to build out the vision of the industrial IoT. In fact, we find that industrial sensors used in various manufacturing facilities have steadily shrunk in size even as the functionality has gone up. Figure 2 shows how even industrial light curtains have evolved over the last 50 years.
Evolution of industrial light curtains (Photo courtesy of SICK AG).
This importance of shrinking industrial sensors to be able to accommodate narrow assemblies or even so that they can be integrated into tiny valves and actuators is echoed by different manufacturers. Balluff highlights the advantage of their small sensor size plus high performance here: “The increasing miniaturization of assemblies demands the smallest possible yet still high-performance components. Balluff mini sensors meet these requirements. With small dimensions and top performance, they offer a great degree of freedom in design and make possible considerably more applications.” 4 Figure 3 shows photoelectric mini-sensors from Balluff.
Photoelectric mini-sensors from Balluff (Photo courtesy of Balluff).
Industrial IoT Drives Distributed Control and Shrinks Controller Size
Given the proliferation of intelligent, connected sensors in a modern manufacturing facility, distributed data collection and processing are becoming the norm. Instead of a large central PLC, we are seeing distributed controllers sprinkled across the manufacturing flow. At the Siemens Amberg Electronics Plant – which is a showcase for Industrie 4.0 – multiple distributed PLCs control each step of the highly automated production flow. As Siemens notes in their press release: “ …Some one thousand of these controllers are in action from one end of the production line to the other…”5
These distributed controllers are getting smaller and more compact while also incorporating more features. If we take a longer historical view, then PLCs have shrunk from the size of a small room/cabinet (circa 1970s) to something that can fit in the palm of your hand (circa 2000). Figure 4 shows a desktop PLC circa 1990s; today’s PLCs are even more compact. At the same time the newer and significantly smaller PLCs feature a stunningly higher processing and interfacing capability.
Example of a desktop PLC, circa 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Siemens Press)