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Industry 4.0, often referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), is being called the fourth Industrial Revolution. It predicts a world where countless “smart” machines and devices embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and communication capabilities are networked to each other, creating the so-called intelligent factory.
Such devices will acquire data and share it with manufacturers, users, machines, and other connected devices. And harnessing that data will let OEMs run equipment and processes faster and more efficiently, respond quicker to changing product demands, maximize reliability via predictive maintenance, use resources more efficiently, and permit real-time optimization of overall manufacturing operations.
Vacuum and Industry 4.0
Vacuum specialist J. Schmalz GmbH, based in Glatten, Germany, is embracing the transition to Industry 4.0. The company manufactures a wide range of vacuum components and systems that make handling, clamping, and gripping processes more productive, efficient, and flexible—and increasingly suited for the intelligent factory.
In fact, Schmalz launched a vacuum generator with an IO-Link interface back in 2008, long before the subject of Industry 4.0 became widely known. The company is also said to be the first vacuum-products manufacturer to combine sensor and actuator functions in Industry 4.0-compatible devices.
According to Managing Directors Kurt and Wolfgang Schmalz, companies competing at an international level can’t afford to ignore Industry 4.0. Manufacturers need to prepare for networked production so people, machines, and systems can seamlessly interact.
Among the potential benefits for OEMs, they say, is equipment that can quickly adapt to product or process changes, yet is highly productive and efficient. It permits both high-volume production and product individualization—resulting, for instance, in cost-effective batch sizes as small as a single product. Networking will ensure these increasingly complex production processes become more manageable.
As an example, Schmalz produces an intelligent vacuum generator called the X-Pump compact ejector that facilitates real-time communication and networking. The X-Pump gathers and stores process data, making it available to other devices and systems on the network; in return, it receives configuration and optimization commands. Its diagnostic and prediction functions monitor system conditions—such as wear or contamination—and detect gradual changes, as well as imminent malfunctions. This lets manufacturers avoid unplanned machine downtime and increases system availability.
This kind of automation networking moves beyond traditional, rigid, hierarchical information structures. In today’s conventional plants, field-level sensors and actuators typically transmit data to control-level devices such as programmable logic controllers. The PLCs, in turn, send information on to process-management level devices such as human-machine interfaces (HMIs), plant-level manufacturing-execution systems (MES) and, ultimately, enterprise-level enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
With Industry 4.0, in contrast, an automation “cloud” lets intelligent devices interact seamlessly with one another. Via IO-Link, it is possible to track information such as vacuum level, whether the workpiece is gripped, and cycle times of intelligent field devices. HMIs handle parameter entries such as time and speed, and measure outputs like energy consumption; MES tracks productivity and quality data and notes maintenance requirements; and ERP monitors overall capacity and availability for operation planning.
“Smart” field devices from Schmalz, such as the X-pump, use IO-Link as the interface for communication in all standard fieldbus systems. IO-Link is a powerful, standard (IEC 61131), point-to-point serial communication protocol used to transfer information—process data, service data, and events—between sensors or actuators and other devices.
It provides significantly more information and control capacity than that from simple devices like digital or analog sensors. Two bytes of process data can be transmitted per cycle between an IO-Link master and device at 400 μsec speeds and 230 kBaud. More process data can be sent at correspondingly slower speeds. Standard cables and connectors reduce wiring complexity. Connection is via a three-wire cable, usually with M12 connectors.
IO-Link’s parameterization capabilities simplify device configuration through standard network interfaces. For example, process operation profiles or instructions can be remotely downloaded to compact ejectors to adjust vacuum gripping action on the fly. In theory, different profiles can be called up for each individual cycle. At the same time, the gripper communicates with the higher-level controller and provides complete condition data. This not only allows continuous monitoring but also comprehensive process control, which in turn means ongoing process optimization. Thus, remote configuration via IO-Link minimizes set-up times and downtime.
In contrast, processes that rely on more-conventional devices can face long changeover times. Machines must be stopped, components changed or manually reset, and operations tested and tweaked before the machine is again up and working. Downtime can be significant and costly.