Improved methods for using sensors in robots

Efficiency, flexibility and visibility can be improved in manufacturing plants by using sensor-level networks to enable sensors in robots to collect better data and more of it.

By Christina Miller September 21, 2022
Courtesy: CFE Media

Discrete Sensor Insights

  • Sensors play a vital role with implementing Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions and act as the eyes, ears and fingers of the robots.
  • When trying to simplify robot startups, sensor-level networks are imperative and there are several network types that can help with this process.

Sensors in robots have evolved a lot over the years. In the past, sensors were individually wired to robots and controller, which needed a large number of wires and setup time. The data they were capable of capturing was limited, and it was even harder to gather and use that data. Using sensor-level networks has greatly improved and simplified robot startups.

Tom Knauer, global industry manager of factory automation with Balluff, spoke at a breakout session on implementing Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions for robots using sensor-level protocols at International Manufacturing Trade Show (IMTS) 2022 in Chicago.

Efficiency, flexibility and visibility through sensors in robots

According to Knauer, the main goals that suppliers are focused on are reducing total manufacturing and supply chain cost, scrap rates and improving quality, asset utilization and machine availability while reducing unplanned downtime and small stops. To achieve these goals, Knauer recommended focusing on three main strategies: Efficiency, flexibility and visibility.

When focusing on efficiency, it can lead to shorter downtime, especially when using condition monitoring. Flexibility is key to meeting customer needs because it allows companies to accommodate customization. For example, Nike has 1.52 quintillion shoe variations and some car companies have 40,000 driver seat variations. Customer expectations of all markets are high — the IIoT and smart manufacturing customers are no different. Visibility affects management and maintenance. Working to improve visibility can help if a company has limited support staff, enable 24/7 production and working remotely.

Sensors play a vital role with implementing IIoT solutions. They act like the eyes, ears and fingers of the robots. The “eyes” of a robot is made up of presence sensors and measuring systems. The “ears” of a robot are comprised of RFID read and write head. Network, cables and connectors act as the nerve pathways, and the brain is the controller — whether it be a programmable logic controller (PLC) or a computer numerical controller (CNC). The muscles of the robot that give it action are the drive motors.

Sensors are the eyes, ears and fingers of the robots.

Sensors are the eyes, ears and fingers of the robots. Courtesy: CFE Media

Sensors and peripheral devices are critical to all robot systems. However, integration and connections still have some challenges, such as long cables, many terminations, high cost to connect, layout changes, slip rings and troubleshooting. Device level protocols, such as sensor-level networks, provide simple and cost-effective ways to connect the sensors to the control system.

Sensor-level networks

When trying to simplify robot startups, sensor-level networks are imperative. Networks, such as CANbus (Controller Area Network bus), AS-Interface and IO-Link can be cost-effective ways to improve control connections for sensors. IO-Link sensors provide process, event and service/device data and support IIoT function. One protocol cannot meet all needs for connecting devices, but a combined solution may be the best fit for many applications.

When sensors and IIoT connectivity collaborate with robots, manufacturing systems become integrated and improve safety and productivity that provides “Big Data,” according to Knauer. Having a collaborative system also enables condition monitoring and predictive maintenance, as opposed to solely relying on reactive and preventative maintenance.

IIoT and IO-Link is a cost-effective connection that offers open and vendor neutral opportunities and can be put with existing infrastructures and networks. The reports contain detailed diagnostics, event warning and enables faster troubleshooting. They can connect to PLCs, SCADA systems and the cloud. One of the challenges this option faces, however, is that more people still trust being hardwired and are cautious to trust the safety of the network connection due to cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Improving robot sensors

There are many different ways to improve efficiency, flexibility and visibility for robots. One is using sensor-level networks for sensors used in robots. By improving the way sensors take in data, a company can increase the amount of data and make it easier to process. Customer expectations are high, but implementing IIoT solutions for robots may be the answer and will take robots to the next level. The more tasks and data that sensors can do, the more productive and helpful robots can be.

Christina Miller, associate editor, CFE Media and Technology,

Author Bio: Christina Miller is the assistant content editor at CFE Media and Technology.

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