Terms such as digitalisation and Industry 4.0 are heard almost everywhere today. But why? Industry 4.0 is the term used to describe the fourth industrial revolution, which means that following the eras of mechanisation, mass production and the digital revolution, we are now in the era of digital networking of machines, products and IT networks.
In this context, the Internet-of -Things (IoT) marks the entry of the Internet into the consumer goods sector, i.e., the networking of household appliances, consumer electronics, automotive electronics and the Internet. That leads to the term IIoT, or the industrial Internet-of-Things, which further subdivides the IoT and establishes a separate domain for industrial manufacturing.
The term IIoT refers to networked machines or production facilities, including the associated measurement technology. Its most important advantages include the prospect of being able to react more quickly to inefficient processes or problems, saving time and using smart machine data to control production and operating processes, as well as entire value chains, more efficiently. All this should be possible in nearly real-time, with the help of intelligent monitoring and decision-making processes. That’s the theory, but what does the actual implementation look like, specifically from the perspective of a field instrument manufacturer like VEGA?
Using the wheel in a new way instead of reinventing it
In the area of measurement and monitoring of level and pressure, VEGA is ready to meet the individual requirements of the process industry. “We are consistently modular. This is a big advantage, because on this basis we can get started at any time,” explains product manager, Stefan Kaspar. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to meet our customers’ current requirements.”
Instead, VEGA relies on bridge technologies such as Bluetooth. These are future-oriented, scalable solutions that can be integrated into existing systems. They can also provide new systems with a tailor-made basic security configuration that continues to grow with new capabilities. “It is important,” says Kaspar, “that users do not have to invest large sums upfront and that the solution can be seamlessly integrated into their existing systems without compromising their security.”
Wireless into the digital transformation
VEGA has a comprehensive offering of Bluetooth technology that covers almost its entire sensor technology portfolio and is based on a well thought-out, multi-stage concept. In this way, the company positions itself to react flexibly to different security requirements.
Accordingly, the PLICSCOM universal display and adjustment module is available with or without Bluetooth. In the Bluetooth version, this function can be deactivated or reactivated at any time by means of a hardware switch. When used with multiple sensors, the radio function is optional. Bluetooth is already securely encrypted at the interface level when using a PC, laptop, smartphone or tablet. In addition, sensor access via Bluetooth is only possible with an access code. Wireless technology can also be applied to older devices since PLICSCOM is backward- compatible for the majority of VEGA sensors already in the field, as far back as 2002.
Secure through a second data channel
The PLICSCOM display and adjustment module is a convenient and economical solution wherever existing systems, which usually only have analog 4-20 mA interfaces, are to be upgraded to digital technologies step by step in a sustainable fashion. Kaspar emphasises this by pointing out that the product range meets the requirements for NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA). The association demands that the IT components can be quickly and flexibly integrated, since these are generally shorter-lived than industrial process plants themselves. This is the only way for process engineering to keep pace with Industry 4.0 development. “This is exactly where VEGA’s initiatives start out from: the best possible system availability, security and lean solutions that can be easily upgraded if required,” he says.
Bluetooth offers a form of communication that runs via a separate, second data channel, which makes it function independently of the user channel. In this way, field devices can be analysed in parallel with the existing process control without interfering with plant security and availability. In the future, this local type of Bluetooth communication will be expandable to a complete diagnostic network, making diagnostic access from the control room down to the field level possible, even for existing analog field devices from VEGA. Plant operators will then be able to react faster and in a more targeted manner to errors and detect deviations early in the process by recording the extensive information available in the field device and taking appropriate countermeasures.
No more empty bins
Just as flexible in use, although a big step ahead in terms of digital intelligence, is the VEGA Inventory System. It offers advanced status monitoring which forms (or can form) the data basis for efficient process supply and automatic re-ordering.
The functions of the VEGA Inventory System always support the respective application requirement. Is it supposed to automatically notify the supplier as soon as minimum stock levels are reached? Is it ‘only’ meant to visualise the course of production cycles over different periods of time, locations and/or media to provide the user with the basis for further action? Should it be used to ‘simply’ shorten supply chains to remote sites via remote inventory data being utilised over long distances? Or is it about integrating and automating inventory directly into an ERP system? The options and possibilities are many and varied and can always be extended at a later date.
A plus in terms of security is the free choice of the network host. This task can be carried out locally by the users themselves or transferred to the protected, always up-to-date VEGA cloud. “We want to make life easier for our customers, which is why our measuring instruments function according to the principle of simplicity,” explains Kaspar. The VEGA Inventory System stands for minimum effort and maximum compatibility – always according to the modular principle.
APL has the potential to become the future standard
It is anything but easy to network field devices via digital fieldbuses such as Profibus PA or Foundation Fieldbus and to make the analysis and evaluation data available to the control level. Due to their high complexity and costs, these technologies have not yet been able to replace the analog 4-20 mA process signal as the most widely used interface for level and pressure measurement technology, even decades after their introduction. By closing this gap, Bluetooth has become a bridge technology that points in the right direction. It mediates between the analog current interface of a field device and the Ethernet-based IT networks that are standard in almost all companies today.
But why are field devices in the process industry not upgraded for direct connection to the existing IT infrastructure, through an Ethernet interface, for example?
The existing two-wire technology, based on the 4-20 mA interface, has a decisive advantage: measured values and supply voltage can be provided simultaneously via only two wires. In addition, they belong to the intrinsically safe ignition protection class, so they are also Ex-proof for use in flammable, hazardous areas.
An alternative is the new Advanced Physical Layer (APL) standard. Based on industrial Ethernet technology, this intrinsically safe, two-wire Ethernet communication will be able to address demanding applications in process automation in the future. According to the plan, it will be designed for a range of up to 200 metres and a bandwidth of 10 Mbps, including the power supply.
Eleven well-known industry partners are currently involved under the umbrella of the Profibus user organisation, including VEGA as well as FieldComm and ODVA. Their common goal is to eliminate the communication bottleneck between field devices and the control level. Even if several years elapse before the first APL devices are available on the market, if it is possible to radically simplify the setup and administration of such networks, this technology has the potential to become the future standard for process automation.
Harvesting data in the field and making it do more
On the road to Industry 4.0, the focus is on added value for people, applications and enterprises. Kaspar points out that every sensor contains important measurement data for this purpose: “It’s all about getting the most out of them.” The best networking of data and its users looks different in every industrial process. Wherever encrypted data transmission via a wireless network is a perfect fit for an application, or when using the VEGA Inventory System, perhaps APL will eventually even take over this task.
The requirements for communication are fundamentally different in each case, but all have the goal of not leaving valuable sensor data unused in the field any longer. From configuration to measurement, recording and diagnosis, through to fault analysis, the aim is to make important information transparent and use it to bring the digital interface between automation networks and conventional IT networks a big step forward.
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