Smarter and more capable sensors

Optimizing the technology available in a sensor and adding IO-Link may reduce the number of sensor types needed while improving capabilities

By Dave Perkon, technical editor

Sensors are getting smarter, providing more data than ever. And their vision is improving. "There are a few key technologies related to sensing that are driving change in the automation industry," says Brad Ragozzino, technical marketing manager at Banner Engineering. "The first is smarter sensors that can solve more challenging applications and provide data for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)."

These smarter sensors are doing more. "Some laser-measurement sensors can now measure not only distance, but also light intensity," says Ragozzino. "This allows users to do more with a single sensor, solve more challenging applications and perform more reliable inspections."

Another important technology driving change in the sensing and actuator industry is IO-Link communication feeding status and data to the IIoT. "IO-Link allows for the bi-directional exchange of data from sensors that support IO-Link and are connected to an IO-Link master," says Ragozzino. "Device data can then be accessed for immediate action or logged for long-term analysis, including OEE calculations and predictive maintenance. Sensors have long been the eyes of the factory, but, with IO-Link communication, businesses can now access sensor data in real time and use it in more meaningful ways."

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Ragozzino thinks that adopting smarter sensors with IO-Link communication will help manufacturers to solve more applications with fewer devices, be more flexible to adapt to change and make better, data-driven decisions in the future.

While popular in Europe, the interest in IO-Link is slowly building in the United States, and machine builders and integrators will soon understand how IO-Link eases installation and configuration of large numbers of sensors. It will also be a common method that simple edge devices use to add their pieces of data to the IIoT. The IIoT wants the data from sensors for its possible use.

"Dual-mode laser-measurement sensors are an important technology for us, as well," says Ragozzino. "In addition to measuring distance, laser sensors with dual-mode capability can also detect changes in light intensity, which allows the sensor to detect not only when the target is present within a certain distance, but also when it returns a certain amount of light to the receiver. This will enable the sensor to detect even the most challenging targets—such as clear objects—that other sensors often miss. While the CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) imager, the underlying technology, is not new technology, we are using it in new ways to unlock the sensor’s ability to provide multiple pieces of information and function as both a distance and contrast sensor all in one device."

Traditionally, an application like this would require at least two sensors: one to detect changes in distance and one to detect contrast.

Full use of the technology available in dual-mode sensors can enable it to detect multiple conditions using a single sensor, including the presence/absence, height and orientation of a part. "Because of this, manufacturers can use fewer sensors for complex inspection tasks and standardize on a single laser-measurement sensor, reducing inventory costs," says Ragozzino. "We are also adding IO-Link communication to our laser-based sensors, which adds further capabilities such as remote monitoring and diagnostics to these already powerful sensors."

Banner is constantly testing dual-mode laser-measurement technology in new and traditionally challenging applications. For example, in a recent application in the electronics manufacturing industry, a laser-distance sensor with dual mode was used for error-proofing integrated circuit chips in pocket tape.

"Error-proofing for this application requires determining whether a circuit chip is present, whether two chips are stacked in one pocket and whether each chip is right-side-up with one side a lighter color than the other," says Ragozzino. "Traditionally, an application like this would require at least two sensors: one to detect changes in distance and one to detect contrast. With dual mode, the laser-distance sensor can detect all three conditions—missing, duplicate or right-side-down chips—with one device. We are also seeing a lot of applications for this in automotive assembly; and the clear object detection capabilities of dual-mode sensors are simplifying detection in consumer packaged goods industries."

Combining smarter sensing with accessible data via IO-Link communication makes sensors better and easier to use. "Laser-distance sensors are already problem solvers in their own right, but IO-Link augments their capabilities further and makes them even easier to use," says Ragozzino. "With IO-Link, you can track failed conditions and know exactly why the condition failed and how often it failed, which helps to resolve problems faster. IO-Link can send alerts, such as decreases in a sensor’s excess gain due to the accumulation of debris, so that the sensor lens can be cleaned before it impacts sensing function. Furthermore, with IO-Link, users can also track sensor runtime to estimate when it will require maintenance or replacement, so that issues can be addressed during scheduled maintenance."

After seeing dual-mode lasers in operation, it makes you wonder when a few more sensors will be added to the device. Perhaps the future includes sensors that combine dual-mode laser distance and contrast, inductive, capacitive and ultrasonic into a five-in-one universal sensor.

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