As the IIoT smart factory experience evolves, it will run on data provided by sensors
The most obvious incarnation of Industry 4.0 is the smart factory. Already revolutionising the manufacture of the products that we use every day, the smart factory is defined by machines that are connected to each other, and to a wider network via the internet. This creates a facility that behaves as one organism, allowing manufacturers to take advantage of a rapidly changing marketplace.
The biggest difference between the smart factory and those of previous generations is that the manufacturing facility of the future will run on more than just raw materials. The key additional ingredient will be data.
Data is vital to the Industry 4.0 revolution in a variety of ways. Data will connect the customer with the manufacturer in a direct relationship that was impossible previously. Changes in consumer demand can be communicated to production in virtually real-time, and the flexibility of the connected factory means that production can be optimised - or even changed completely - almost instantly.
Data is also allowing employees to enjoy a safer and more dynamic workplace, giving them the opportunity to make a positive impact on the success of the manufacturing operation. Factory floors can be dirty, dangerous places to work. By collected data from the machines, analysing it and delivering it to the employee, the smart factory will allow operators to make second-by-second decisions that optimise production and enhance the safety of the manufacturing environment.
Analysis of the data collected from the manufacturing floor will also have a beneficial impact on the burden of maintenance. Machines will monitor their own performance, and the data collected can predict potential failures earlier and provide advanced warning of maintenance requirements.
Data will be the key to the success of Industry 4.0, but how will it be collected? Machines need eyes and ears of their own to provide feedback to operators, and so there will be a huge rise in the demand for industrial sensors.
Robots have been a feature of the factory floor for decades, but their role will expand further as they become more autonomous. As robots take more active roles, the need for sensing will grow too, both to ensure safety in the workplace and to maximise their efficiency. Position sensors must provide accurate measurements in the harsh environments found on factory floor applications. Resistance to contaminants such as oil, dust and dirt will be vital to the reliability of robots.
Temperature sensors have an important role in the monitoring of the production process. Many manufacturing operations, such as the moulding of plastic parts, depend on accurate temperature control to ensure the quality of the finished product. Other processes, such as the machining of metal components, generate heat which, if allowed to rise, can threaten the efficient working of machinery and can even have potential safety implications. Under these circumstances, sensors that provide highly precise measurements and long-term stability are vital to manufacturers.
Force sensors have a wide range of potential applications. Not only can accurate force measurement be important for the movement of robots and machinery, they also have a role to play in operator safety. For example, load cells built into the floor can detect if an operator is approaching dangerous equipment. Once again, sensors must be designed to withstand the harsh conditions found within factories and still function reliably.
In addition to providing measurements important for the safe and efficient running of machines, sensors have a fascinating role to play in the area of predictive maintenance. As an example, subtle changes in the operating temperature of a machine can provide early warning about potential failures or allow the operator to adjust its operation to make more efficient use of energy. By providing indications of maintenance requirements before failures occur, the operator can plan work ahead of time and minimise the impact on the production schedule.
Data is going to be the most important commodity in the smart factory. Whether it is optimising efficiency, maintaining a safe working environment, or easing the problems of maintaining a large facility, data is going to be the new raw material that binds it all together. Without sensors, it will be impossible to realise the potential offered by Industry 4.0.
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