Tech Report Callout: Digital technology changing the role of sensors in industry

June 9, 2020
A mission to deliver not just sensors, but sensor intelligence.

It wasn’t so long ago that sensor manufacturers focused almost exclusively on hardware technology. They built electronic devices that competed head to head on performance, reliability, delivery and cost. But an interesting thing happened on the way to Industry 4.0.

As digital computing power and communications bandwidth seeped deeper into the traditional automation architecture, sensor manufacturers suddenly had more capabilities—and far more options—to offer their industrial clients. And that meant asking new

Ron Stuver, director, business consulting, Industry 4.0 SICK, Inc.

questions that have more to do with what customers are trying to accomplish and less about the technical specs of a particular sensor, according to Ron Stuver, director of Industry 4.0 business consulting for sensor specialist SICK, Inc. “Those questions are still there,” Stuver says, “but they come after we’ve established the value that we bring to their business.”

Smart Industry caught up with Stuver to learn more about how the industrial sensor landscape is changing, and how SICK, whose company tagline is “Sensor Intelligence,” is redefining the role of sensors in today’s smart factories, processing plants and supply chains.

Q: Sensors have long been foundational to the automation of industrial processes. But with the continuing advance of digital technologies and the advent of Industry 4.0, how do you see the role of sensors changing?

A: The capability of sensors continues to evolve and improve. Data collection, of course, remains a primary sensor function, but connectivity options as well as locally resident edge computing capabilities are increasingly important considerations. Connectivity today often includes a direct cloud connection, so that more types of non-control data and information can be collected without disrupting the control network. We can also do more things with that data at the sensor itself, instead of relegating those activities to other edge devices or cloud applications.

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Q: For some time now, SICK’s mission has been to deliver not just sensors but “Sensor Intelligence.” In what ways has this reshaped how the company delivers value for its customers in the industrial space? A: The value we deliver to customers is related to enhanced visibility into their operations at the edge. The ability to gather real-time information about how their production processes are running is vital. Let’s take, for example, predictive maintenance on operational equipment. While the concept has been understood for many years, the technology, costbenefit and understanding of how to align the solutions with return-oninvestment has been lacking.

Today, SICK is investing in the resources—such as myself as a business consultant—to help ensure that the investments our customers make will provide the benefits expected. And since SICK has decades of experience with sensors and technology at the edge, we are uniquely suited to help them understand what needs to be done within their operations. Our business-consulting capabilities help to confirm the “what” and the “why”—then, our Safety & Sensor Integration team quickly follows with the “how.” They’re the execution arm of our I4.0 strategy.

Q: As a global supplier of more than 40,000 industrial products, SICK has a substantial manufacturing footprint of its own. How is the company using its own manufacturing operations to prove out and enhance its sensors’ intelligence? How are you living Industry 4.0 in your own facilities?

A: In 2018, SICK launched its Industry 4.0 factory in Freiburg, Germany near our global headquarters in Waldkirch. We use state-ofthe-art technology including robotics, automatic guided carts (AGCs), and of course our own sensors to automate the production of our own sensor products. This enables many of the I4.0 benefits that customers hear about, such as batch-size-one, or the capability to make small custom orders on the fly, without the labor-intensive reconfiguration of machines. It’s all automated.

Further, data generated at the edge becomes information that is visible to any of our operations staff, no matter where they are located. You can visualize the entire plant and zoom in on a specific production cell, all the way to the specific sensor within the machine that is producing a product. We are truly practicing what we preach at our I4.0 factory in Freiburg.

At SICK’s “Industry 4.0 NOW” facility in Freiburg, Germany, the company uses its own sensors, as well as robots and automatic guided carts (AGCs), to put into practice the latest digital manufacturing methodologies such as batch-size-one.

Q: By their very definition, sensors sit at the utmost edge of the automation network, bridging the gap between the physical world and its cyber counterpart. From SICK’s perspective, what are the considerations that go into the next level architecture for turning that data into actionable information? Is it primarily the domain of nearby edge computing devices, or are these activities relegated to the cloud?

A: The first thing to consider is the connectivity infrastructure. Whether the data is used at the edge, in an on-premise server or in the cloud, a key component that is often overlooked is connectivity. The sensor can generate all kinds of data about the specific task in a process, but there needs to be connectivity between the sensor and the destinations where that data will be visualized and stored for further analysis. Although wireless is something we are asked about, most customers prefer a more reliable, hardwired operational technology (OT) network infrastructure. And this OT network has to be designed to properly and securely connect into the IT network space. It is important that this connectivity conversation occur up front, and that the right partners are brought together to collaborate on a solution.

Also, the near-future is bringing more advanced technology, such as artificial intelligence and deep learning, to the sensors themselves. With more advanced intelligent sensor technology, SICK will bring the ability to conduct real-time analysis of data—right at the edge—eliminating the need to transmit the data elsewhere for analysis. This does not remove the need for controllers, or analytics software applications running on local servers or in the cloud. But it will enhance the ability to make real-time, automated decisions, closer to the edge when speed of response is critical.

Q: What investments is SICK making to ensure that its product, application and services offering continues to advance what’s possible for its customers?

A: For many years, SICK has invested a significant portion of its annual profits back into innovation. We have an R&D innovation hub of startup initiatives where new ideas are born, designed and tried out. For the past several years we’ve been developing our Industry 4.0 services, highlighted by our Safety & Sensor Integration team. With SICK expertise at the edge, our S&SI team is made up of experienced industrial engineers who know how to “sensorize” machines and legacy equipment in order to create and harvest the data necessary to support I4.0 projects that align with business initiatives.

Want more? Find news from the Sick team here.