24 May 2024

Adding value in the digital dimension: Sculpting with sensor data

Neil Sandhu, SICK UK product manager for Imaging, Measurement and Ranging, takes a look at why in a digitised world no sensor is an island, and that it must connect and interact with other devices and feed its data into software and digital services.

“Every block of stone has a sculpture inside of it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”, Michaelangelo once said.

In the same way, every sensor produces data as a raw material, and it is the task of the engineer to refine it and use it to add value to drive and improve business processes. In a digitised world, no sensor is an island. It must connect and interact with other devices and feed its data into software and digital services.

Only connect

The physical hardware is only the beginning: Just as the phone in our pocket has far outstripped its original function as a device for making audio calls, so sensor technology has matured far beyond the its ability to detect, measure, identify or safeguard. Sensors have become intelligent and programmable tools for enterprise-wide business improvement.

With their own decentralised computing power on board, the ways that sensors and actuators connect and collaborate in automated processes has multiplied. They can provide extra information to the control via point-to-point open communications such as IO-Link; they can work independently or in clusters to complete ‘Smart Tasks’ by themselves. Routing through intelligent edge devices such as Sensor Integration Machines and IoT Gateways, provides a control architecture for a data superhighway via higher-level control systems or straight to cloud-based services.

Space for applications

To turn these connections into applications, you need software. So, five years ago, SICK introduced a framework for software application development. Called AppSpace, some viewed it as a bold and unconventional move for a hardware manufacturer. But now it is completely normal to download a ready-made SICK SensorApp that can take data from a sensor and process it in a way that exactly suits the application.

AppSpace has made it quick and easy to create automated applications and to customise them without complex programming, whether you are a user, an integrator, or a machine designer. Intelligent devices have become flexible platforms that can be adapted to changing process and product needs.

Bold as it was, AppSpace was just one step along the journey. Operators have come to expect intelligent machines that make their automation more responsive and adaptable. Now, they also want the information from, and about, all the devices on those machines to be transparently available to them 24 hours a day. They want to monitor digital representations of all their assets and to manipulate and control all that data using a real-time virtual environment.

Space for integration

So, in June 2020, SICK unveiled a third pillar to its hardware and software offering to sit alongside its rapidly advancing sensor technology portfolio and AppSpace. Sick IntegrationSpace is a web-based platform for data-based digital services whose purpose is to align efficiency in automated factory, process and logistics operations with enterprise-wide business improvement systems.

SICK IntegrationSpace is not only a ‘self-serve’ distribution channel for a growing, modular portfolio of cloud-based applications; through a combination of digital tools and services, users will be able to vertically integrate from the sensor right through to the cloud. Data from SICK sensors and other third-party devices can be directly accessed via web-based services as a raw material for individualised, added-value business processes.

SICK IntegrationSpace is a means to gather and represent sensor data in a virtual environment. It is the mechanism by which users will visualise both the sensors and the data they produce. Furthermore, the sensor data can be refined, simplified and integrated using cloud-driven services such as Deep Learning to add value to processes.

Through dashboard-based tools, users will gain insights into the operating health and service status of devices. SICK IntegrationSpace therefore creates the transparency necessary to maintain automated systems with maximum uptime and minimum inventories. Data can be directed seamlessly to provide real time analytics, while being recorded and integrated into predictive and prescriptive maintenance systems.

Three simple steps

You can connect your SICK devices in three simple steps: Firstly, create a virtual representation (digital twin) of your device, then pair the real device with the virtual representation. Finally, via the virtual device, manage how the data is routed and forwarded to other SICK data applications, such as individual dashboards, digital maintenance services, as well as third party dashboards or business improvement systems.

The modular concept of SICK IntegrationSpace allows you to subscribe only to the services you use. Start simply with the SICK Installed Base Manager: A foundation module for the IntegrationSpace concept it’s a data ‘acorn’ that can grow into the digitisation of entire maintenance regimes. You can use this smartphone App to build a database that gives you fingertip access to information about your installed devices. By simply tagging the 2D code label on each SICK device, users can collect data on their entire installed sensor inventory. The SICK Installed Base Manager also enables non-SICK devices to be added.

For every SICK device, the App will automatically detect and log the serial number and its age, assign it to the machine and plant, with the option to add photos and the exact GPS location. Individual sensors can then be located quickly using the search function. Authorised employees can interrogate and update the asset base with new devices at any time, with quick access to technical data and product manuals. All stored device data can be exported for use in the customer’s own systems.

A key foundation element of the IntegrationSpace concept is SICK AssetHub, a web-based enterprise asset management (EAM) tool that provides a feature-rich and interactive view of all your sensors, systems and other devices. You can manage a digital twin of those assets along their entire life cycles. Data is evaluated in the AssetHub to ensure maintenance happens at the right times, software and firmware are up to date and that inventories are well planned and optimised.

The AssetHub also provides transparency for SICK field services to support customers effectively and enables maintenance programmes to be optimised.

SICK LiveConnect unlocks a secure, standardised and easy-to-use live data connection from each sensor to the SICK AssetHub via an edge gateway such as the SICK SIM1012 or the TDC-E. The sensor status can be visualised in the cloud and process data integrated into monitoring applications. The LiveConnect service creates a digital trail linking hardware to SensorApp, and to the Cloud.

The SICK Monitoring Box allows for the early detection of status changes in sensors, machines, and plants. It enables visualization of data in a browser-based dashboard for condition monitoring and real time analysis. Integration with sensors is facilitated through standard SensorApps for SICK devices and implemented via the SICK cloud, or at a customer’s premises.

Process changes can be tracked directly from devices and users have real-time access to sensor parameters, for example whether pre-set limits have been exceeded. Alarms and notifications can be set up, and historical data and events are presented clearly in a log book format, so they can be used to make application-specific predictions.

Turbulent times

In turbulent times, organisations must be resilient and agile, responding quickly to fluctuating demand and maximising uptime. Connecting right into heart of operations, the data from sensors is an empowering raw material that can be transformative across entire business processes. The challenge is to sculpt with that data as seamlessly, simply, and securely as possible.

By bringing their sensors to the cloud, engineers not only extend the availability and operating life of machines, they harness digital data for business improvement, from the machine and shop floor, through the enterprise level to the supply chain beyond.


Contact information

For more information please contact Andrea Hornby on: 01727 831121 or email at: andrea.hornby@sick.co.uk