Industry 4.0: Realising the revolution

Paul Boughton

Again this year Industry 4.0 will be the focus topic of many a seminar, conference and exhibition. Justin Leonard asks: “Will the ‘smart factory’ concept ever become reality?”

The slow, interactive adoption process has begun and the industry is already feeling the benefits in terms of cost and risk reductions, performance improvements and enhanced flexibility. This is especially so in the Automotive industry, and other high end manufacturing environments, where Industry 4.0 techniques are already being applied.

Certainly the desire to manufacture custom products quickly and inexpensively are the main attractors to Industry 4.0 for low volume manufacturing. Fundamental to this is the realisation of a cyber-physical system (CPS) that links all levels of the value chain in real-time; not only in the production environment but also the internal and external communication channels – from incoming orders, design, customisation and then finally delivery requires a seamless communications channel.

To support this the autonomous platforms for IT (Information Technology – the office) and OT (Operational Technology – the factory floor) are converging. Originally built on separate technology stacks, protocols and standards, the world of OT is progressively adopting IT-like technologies that meet the ruggedness and reliability standards industry requires. The share of installed Industrial Ethernet nodes is increasing steadily and every device manufacturers offers Ethernet interfaces in their portfolio.

The level of automation must continue to rise and this will inevitably call for a higher level of reliability in the communications network – right down to moving parts of the machinery. Under these conditions, the traditional Ethernet cables used for fixed installations can only achieve very limited service life. In addition, machine builders are increasingly downsizing the footprint of their equipment, which is driving for more compact designs. igus was one of the first cabling companies to develop Ethernet CAT5/6/6A/7 cables specifically for continuous movement applications.

Another major challenge for machine builders is to reduce the vibration of the machine components, which will not only reduce factory noise significantly but improve the accuracy of the manufacturing process. Both the surface quality and the dimensional and geometrical accuracies of the machined work piece can be adversely affected and at the same time process stability can be reduced. This leads to low manufacturing quality, high tool wear and ultimately machine downtime.

Low vibration energy chains are often overlooked in the battle against machine vibration. When the energy supply system rolls, a polygon effect can occur – that is, the chain doesn’t roll in a perfect arc – which results in vibrations that can lead to high oscillation amplitudes and even resonance. Most producers of high quality energy chains rely on a small chain link pitch to reduce the polygon effect.

The more advanced energy cable offerings pursue this same design principle but instead use an elastic spring interconnect for the chain links that improves arc shape; this results in extremely low noise and an almost vibration-free running of the energy chain, even at high accelerations.

Energy-efficient machine components are also required to ensure competitiveness. The more mass is required to be accelerated, the more energy is required. High acceleration energy is also required for the change of direction of masses. Lightweight construction is increasingly vital for manufacturers of machine tools, particularly with highly dynamic applications.

To drive the alternating strokes of an energy chain, the driving power must be applied in the form of push-pull force. Lightweight energy chains, which can be up to 30% lighter than similar products with equivalent dimensions and yet remain robust, require less driving power so contribute to energy efficiency through low power consumption potentially leading to smaller drive requirements.

The volume of data required for Industry 4.0 will only increase - it is likely therefore that the issue of EMC protection as well as speed and length limitations of copper-based cables may be more of a focus. Perhaps it is worthwhile planning for the system-independent future today?

Fibre optic cables enable safe communication that is independent of the system. If households of today are equipped with fibre-to-home connections already in major cities, then why settle for anything less in the industrial environment? Fibre optic cables tested for millions of strokes in small radii that are twistable for 3D robotics applications may prove to be an interesting alternative to copper.

Machine builders will benefit by taking a closer look at their physical communications network. More attention to the criteria for selecting cables and energy chains will help improve service life and therefore process reliability in addition to realise the cost and risk reductions, performance improvements and enhanced flexibility that the Industry 4.0 concept promises.

Justin Leonard is a director of igus, the producer of injection moulded polymer bearings and reinforced plastic cable carriers, based Northampton. UK.