Connect the factories of tomorrow, today

If seamless connectivity is the future, then enhanced connectivity is the here and now. Technological developments are already underway in the industrial automation field, distributing intelligence between devices that were previously unintelligent. At the same time, open interfaces like the Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA) bring us one step closer to true device interoperability. Taken together, these developments have broad implications for how we design, deploy and maintain our production systems in an increasingly digital world.

With the right changes, technologies, such as intelligent pneumatic components, Internet of Things (IoT) gateways, and open communication standards, can be the stepping stones to a truly connected future.

Emerging intelligence at the field level
In a typical factory, the production stage consists of various electromechanical components such as linear devices, rotary drives, servomotors and grippers, as well as more complex mechanical systems such as multi-axis Cartesian handling systems. To realize the full vision of Industry 4.0, all relevant data from production processes, including the status of these dumb devices, must be made available in real time. Intelligent components are the prerequisite for the availability of real-time data and play an essential role in the coherent and uniform exchange of information within production processes.

As a testament to improved connectivity, many once-unintelligent components now incorporate IIoT functionality, data processing, and diagnostic capabilities, making them intelligent. These new local functionalities bring many advantages in terms of performance to the overall operation, in particular in terms of efficiency and maintenance.

An example of newly distributed field-level intelligence is the Motion Terminal VTEM, the first valve that makes pneumatic functions available through motion applications. Designed with enhanced connectivity in mind, it allows users to easily adapt to changing process parameters in a way that improves production flexibility over wired technologies. It also incorporates smart sensors for control, diagnostic and self-learning tasks, eliminating the need for additional components.

The VTEM Motion Terminal offers the functionality of traditional 2/2, 3/2, 4/2 or 4/3 way valves, as well as proportional technology and servo-pneumatic functions. At the same time, users can perform motion tasks using just one type of valve, integrating complex motions, variable positioning, and pre-defined travel time, all in one device. Other smart functions of Motional Terminal VTEM include:

  • Energy efficient applications. The VTEM Motion Terminal includes an ECO Drive motion app that automatically reduces pneumatic energy to the level required for motion. As a result, it keeps power consumption to a minimum for simple motion tasks that do not require additional limit switch force.
  • Leak diagnosis. By detecting leaks at an early stage, Motion Terminal VTEM increases process reliability and productivity. It also reduces unnecessary energy loss.
  • Condition monitoring. With this capability, the VTEM Motion Terminal reduces system lifecycle costs. It also facilitates a faster return on investment (ROI) and makes you more competitive in the market.

Through its combination of traditional valve technology and digital motion applications, the VTEM Motion Terminal replaces more than 50 individual components, while improving manufacturing flexibility, reducing system complexity, and enabling new capabilities of field level data analysis and condition monitoring.

Integration of components with IoT gateways
One of the biggest challenges in implementing seamless connectivity is the integration of networked components and systems. Traditionally, integrating servo motors and controllers from different manufacturers has been a complex and laborious task, increasing both engineering time and costs. In addition to changes in software and hardware platforms, software engineers are faced with different fieldbus systems, software modules, and data protocols that require them to master multiple programming languages. They also need to understand how the individual components behave in relation to each other. In these situations, debugging electromechanical drive systems can take a long time and any technical difficulty that arises during commissioning can lead to unforeseen production delays.

IoT gateways, like the CPX-IOT, allow users to connect drives and other components for visibility into various operating parameters including temperature, speed, voltage, and more. The gateway not only consolidates machine and production data, it also makes it easier to manage this information. Depending on the complexity, users can connect up to 31 components and modules at the shop floor. They can then receive real-time, cloud-ready data through secure open interfaces. This capability opens up many options for data analysis, from smarter maintenance practices to digital twins.

Open protocols for device interoperability
Whether for mechanical or control systems, an impressive number of products, components and solutions are available from different manufacturers, each with its own interface, hardware, programming language and communication protocol. As mentioned earlier, machine builders and engineers often spend a lot of time integrating these various components into their machines. Fortunately, new, open communication protocols are paving the way for true interoperability of devices in connected environments.

One example, IO-Link, provides a new standardized I / O technology interface that extends fieldbus and industrial Ethernet systems. In addition to transmitting process data, it allows users to upload parameter data from the control system to the sensor or actuator, and then send the diagnostic data back to the control system. While integrating a fieldbus interface down to the lowest field level was an expensive undertaking, IO-Link transmits digital or analog values ​​with a simple three or five wire cable.

A second example, OPC UA, is a vendor-independent software interface that carries machine data, including process values ​​and metrics, and then describes that data semantically in a machine-readable manner. As OPC UA operates independently of the operating system, it provides an open communication solution from front end devices, sensors, actuators and controllers to the cloud. In addition to bringing the industry closer to true plug-and-play functionality, this interface enables seamless integration of components, allowing them to communicate with each other, as well as easily collect and exchange data.

To take advantage of these benefits, factory automation solution providers are increasingly adding open interface compatibility to their components to provide seamless communication between front-end devices, controllers, and the cloud. For example, Festo has integrated OPC UA into its valve terminals, enabling plant managers, engineers and operators to reap the benefits of smart manufacturing. When paired with IoT gateways such as the CPX platform, operators can quickly and easily collect device information and status through an Ethernet connection and OPC UA protocol. From there, the system can then send this information to the cloud through a second Ethernet connection and IoT protocols, such as Advanced Message Queuing Protocol (AMQP) or Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT).

The road ahead
As connected technologies continue to take off, factories are moving towards a future in which all components, controllers and the industrial cloud are seamlessly integrated, delivering countless production benefits. Although progress is well advanced, we are not there yet. The last mile will require an ongoing effort to connect formerly siled systems, to embrace open communication standards, and to fully implement digital strategies from the shop floor to the enterprise level.

To learn more about putting the IIoT into practice, visit www.festo.com.


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Norma A. Roth