Smart Machines & Factories
Sensors look smart for Industry 4.0
Published:  25 October, 2016

David Hannaby explores how smart sensors are the “unsung heroes” that enables the smart factory.

As we pursue a vision of Industry 4.0, we expect smarter machines to outperform our human capabilities and not only make sense of the world as we do, but also do so with data processing power, endurance and stamina that we could never match.

Fully-enabled connectivity and data sharing is the backbone of the smart factory, seamlessly integrated with the supply chain and logistics. The corresponding challenge for sensor technology must be to first sense any object, no matter what it is, or what the environmental conditions are.

In the smart factory, sensors are the ‘unsung heroes’; the glue that holds together today’s and tomorrow’s automated environments.

Intelligent sensing technology is already well on the way to detecting and measuring any object, in virtually all industrial automation applications. The accuracy and consistency now achievable enables picking, placing, labelling and printing to be performed at higher production speeds than ever before, with resultant benefits in low wastage, minimal line downtime and better quality control.

In future, we will also see more variety and customisation in mass production, as greater product variation is combined with more responsive, frequent and smaller deliveries to business, store or home. Already in automotive manufacturing, you can have a new car delivered that is practically unique to your specifications. In future, processing and production techniques will support diversity to provide greater choice and extended lines - variety that must be achieved without sacrificing tight margins.

Intelligent sensing technology will also support this growth. So, on a flexible, automated production line armed with intelligent sensors and full track and trace labelling and coding, it is perfectly feasible for, say a food manufacturer, to pack cook-in-sauce trays of three different flavours in the ratio of, perhaps, 4:3:2, or 6:4:3, to suit an individual store’s demand. Or indeed a soft drink bottler to combine cola, ginger beer and lemonade together to match a local supermarket’s previous purchasing habits or to support a specific promotion.

With smarter communications also comes the option to achieve rapid, automated product changeovers on a production line to make small batch manufacture a reality. By ensuring the range of parameters for different product variations are available in the data system, and triggered by the sensor detecting a particular product variant – label colour, bottle height, etc. – the conveyor and all associated machines in the system can be reset, without having to stop and restart the line.

Smart sensors

The development of smart sensors is as much the result of evolution as of revolution.

Adding IO-Link interface capability to standard sensors has transformed two-way communications in factory control systems, while the ASIC chip has miniaturised powerful sensor processing power.

The data generated by sensors is the basis for smart machine control and automation but, up until very recently, the legacy of a pyramidal configuration for central processing control has slowed progress towards fully integrated factory systems. With intelligent sensors, more complex data processing is enabled within the sensor unit, rather than relying on remote processing via the HMI or PLC.

As a result, a range of advanced functions can be embedded into sensors of all types to provide a powerful new set of tools for the engineer. Smart Sensors achieve control and increase the productivity of machines by taking on specific functionality and logical loops that previously needed to be processed higher up in the PLC. Real time events can be locally processed, without waiting for the raw data to be uploaded to the central PLC program, processed and information extracted before action initiation.

With the advent of smart sensors, distributed control systems can be freed from processing bottlenecks between sensors and HMI or PLC. The processed data and resulting actions can be made available for recording, safety, traceability and quality control purposes to be overseen at the central system level.


Smart sensors validate product and packaging quality at high production speeds to help reduce waste and avoid costly machine downtime. Smart vision technology for inspection detects the position of goods and packaging and measures their dimensions, volume, and contours. Smart sensor technology uses this higher volume of process data for better monitoring and automation of production, processing and packaging in real time, bypassing the wait for up and down loading from central control systems.


Traceability and identification are critical to highly-automated factories and smart sensors contribute to improving track and trace capabilities. From RFID technology with on-product transponder chips for high-value or safety-critical items, to 1D or 2D barcoding, or vision technology capable of combining Optical Character Reading, Optical Character Verification, 2D and barcode reading in a single device; all are being upgraded to provide intelligent performance.

Making Sense of the Future

Sensors have become endemic in every automated production and logistics environment over the last 40 years. They have developed from optical switches the size of milk bottles, into, miniature, unobtrusive and intelligent devices that enable greater flexibility, connectivity and real-time diagnostics. There would never be a smart factory, without smart sensors.

David Hannaby is SICK UK’s industrial sensor specialist.

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