Connecting the Factories of Tomorrow, Today

Nov. 3, 2021
With the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things, production systems are driving toward a seamlessly connected future, in which all mechanical, electrical, and intelligent interfaces work together as one complete package.

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

With the right changes, technologies—such as smart 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 floor consists of various electromechanical components like linear devices, rotary drives, servo drives, and grippers, as well as more complex mechanical systems like 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 unintelligent devices, must be made available in real time. Smart components are the prerequisite for real-time data availability and play a critical role in the consistent and uniform exchange of information within production processes. 

A testament to enhanced connectivity, many formerly unintelligent components now incorporate IIoT functionality, data processing, and diagnostic capabilities, rendering them smart. These new local functionalities bring multiple performance benefits to the overall operation, especially where efficiency and maintenance are concerned. 

One example of newly distributed intelligence at the field level is the Motion Terminal VTEM—the first valve that makes pneumatic functions available through motion apps. Designed with enhanced connectivity in mind, it enables users to easily adapt to changing process parameters in a way that improves production flexibility compared to hardwired technologies. It also integrates intelligent sensors for control, diagnostics, and self-learning tasks, eliminating the need for additional components. 

The Motion Terminal VTEM provides 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 a single valve type, integrating complex movements, variable positioning, and preset travel time—all in one device. Other smart functions of the Motional Terminal VTEM include: 

  • Energy-efficient apps. The Motion Terminal VTEM includes an ECO drive motion app that automatically reduces pneumatic energy to the level required for movement. As a result, it keeps energy consumption to a minimum for simple motion tasks that don’t need additional end-position force. 
  • Leakage diagnostics. By detecting leaks at an early stage, the Motion Terminal VTEM increases process reliability and productivity. It also reduces unnecessary energy losses. 
  • Condition monitoring. Thanks to this capability, the Motion Terminal VTEM reduces the lifecycle costs of systems. It also facilitates a faster return on investment (ROI) and makes you more competitive in the market. 

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

Component integration with IoT gateways 
One of the biggest challenges to implementing seamless connectivity is the integration of networked components and systems. Traditionally, integrating servo drives and controllers from different manufacturers has been a complex and laborious task, driving up both engineering time and costs. In addition to changes in software and hardware platforms, software engineers face different fieldbus systems, software modules, and data protocols that require them to master several programming languages. They must also understand how individual components behave in relation to one another. In these situations, electromechanical drive systems can take a long time to de-bug, and any technical difficulties that arise during commissioning can cause unscheduled production delays. 

IoT gateways, like the CPX-IOT, enable 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, but it also makes this information easier to manage. Depending on the complexity, users can connect up to 31 components and modules at the shop-floor level. They can then receive real-time, cloud-ready data via secure open interfaces. This capability opens up many data analysis options—from smarter maintenance practices to digital twins. 

Open protocols for device interoperability 
Whether for mechanical or control systems, an overwhelming number of products, components, and solutions are available from different manufacturers—each one 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 device interoperability in connected environments. 

One example, IO-Link, provides a new standardized I/O technology interface that expands fieldbus and industrial Ethernet systems. In addition to transmitting process data, it lets users download parameter data from the control system to the sensor or actuator, and then send diagnostic data back to the control system. Whereas integrating a fieldbus interface down to the lowest field level used to be a costly endeavor, IO-Link transmits digital or analog values with a simple three- or five-wire cable. 

A second example, OPC UA, is a vendor-neutral software interface that transports machine data, including process values and measurements, and then describes that data semantically in a machine-readable way. Because OPC UA works independently of the operating system, it provides an open communication solution from front-end devices, sensors, actuators, and controllers up to the cloud. In addition to bringing the industry closer to true plug-and-play functionality, this interface enables the seamless integration of components—allowing them to talk to each other, as well as gather and exchange data easily. 

To reap these benefits, suppliers of factory automation solutions 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 embedded OPC UA into its valve terminals, enabling plant managers, engineers, and operators to realize the benefits of smart manufacturing. When paired with IoT gateways like the CPX platform, operators can quickly and easily collect device information and statuses via an Ethernet connection and OPC UA protocol. From there, the system can then send that information to the cloud via a second Ethernet connection and IoT protocols, such as Advanced Message Queueing Protocol (AMQP) or Message Queueing Telemetry Transport (MQTT). 

The road ahead 
As connected technologies continue to take off, factories are moving toward a future in which all components, controllers, and the industrial cloud are seamlessly integrated, yielding countless production benefits. Although progress is well underway, we are not quite there yet. The last mile will require a continued drive to tie together formerly siloed 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 IIoT into practice, please visit

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