Digital world of sensors: "We make valuable information accessible."

Mar 10, 2020

SICK has been developing sensors for over 75 years. During that time the company has always been a little bit ahead of the times. We spoke to Christoph Müller, Senior Vice President for Industrial Integration Space at SICK AG, about how SICK is continuing to following this path with its new digital services.   

Sensors as the starting point for Industry 4.0
Sensors as the starting point for Industry 4.0


Mr Müller, digital solutions is an area that SICK has not been particularly known for in the past. Why are you now following this path?

Müller SICK has been working on issues relating to the automation of tasks in the industrial sector for almost 75 years. Sensor innovations and their application continue to be a key area of focus to this day. But we know this sector well and the challenges faced in production, logistics and the process industry. And: Sensors are the starting point for Industry 4.0. It's where data is created. That gives us the opportunity today to utilize our sensor technologies in a unique way. Digitalization enables us to expand our role in the industry and offer solutions for sensor-based applications. 

And what will this role look like in future? 
Müller We have long been offering solutions that extend beyond pure automation components. We are now expanding this systems approach into the digital space. We help our customers employ virtual development methodologies during the development phase by virtualizing the sensor functions. We also ensure that the data – and lots more of it than currently – automatically makes its way from the sensor to the computer on the factory premises or into the cloud. There the data is networked and further processed within broader contexts. Valuable information no longer goes to waste in the sensor. We make it accessible.


Data automatically makes its way from the sensor to the computer or into the cloud
Data automatically makes its way from the sensor to the computer or into the cloud


What added value does this bring to customers?

Müller Today, customers come to us with problems which have nothing to do with classical automation engineering and issues relating to sensor systems, logic, and actuators. Instead, they want to design their overall business process to be more efficient. Our sensors and systems provide the necessary data to help solve this problem. Just having the ability to visualize the data often offers enormous added value. If I now link the data to further process parameters or simply to experiential knowledge, I can avoid quality problems or reduce downtimes.
How might that kind of visualization look like?
Müller To represent the sensor information in the digital space, the LiveConnect capability from SICK provides a standardized connection from the sensor to the SICK AssetHub via an edge gateway, for example our SIM1012. The SICK AssetHub has services for processing and networking not only static data but also the values measured by the sensor. The available services include, for example, online and real time visualization of the sensor data, and administration of the maintenance plans and certificates of devices.


Representation of sensor information in digital space
Representation of sensor information in digital space


How does the customer acquire the right data for his process? 

Müller Using SICK AppSpace, the customer can access individual apps for quickly adapting his sensors to the specific task to be solved. SICK Integration Space® enables our customers to access cloud-based software solutions. Edge gateways, like the Sensor Integration Machines or the TDC-E, connect SICK sensors to the cloud. Once these prerequisites have been met, all kinds of sensor products can be easily and, in particular quickly vertically integrated for these cloud solutions. This enables us to create easy-to-implement solutions that not only generate data but also utilize that data. 
Let’s go back to SICK AppSpace for a moment. That’s not actually a new development. Can you nevertheless briefly summarize in three sentences what you mean by it? 
Müller Simply said: the idea behind it was to provide apps for sensors. We wanted to give the customer the ability to tailor his sensors to his specific sensor tasks. Today, SICK AppSpace is home to SensorApps for specific applications that can be quickly installed on the sensor or the edge device. Furthermore, software developers can independently, or in collaboration with our experts as part of a developer community develop custom SensorApps for sensor applications. 
For what applications do you already offer SensorApps?
Müller CM: Our AppPool currently includes user apps for quality control, robot guidance, and positioning. From mid-2020, SICK will be opening up the AppSpace to a customer segment with no programming knowledge in order to also give these users the opportunity to solve specific sensor applications without having to write any code. We have developed a graphical interface for networking and configuring pre-defined function blocks for this purpose. Keyword: Graphical Application Modeling.


Programming of sensors
Programming of sensors


What role does the automation architecture play? 

Müller This too will change. Up until now, data has usually been sent to a PLC that creates an automation logic – namely for controlling and regulating machines. That's where the use of the data ends, with no information being provided about the manufacturing process or the value adding on the production line. We can help with this, for example with our PC-based FieldEcho program that makes the data available to IO-Link sensors through the controller. But very often these days the system is expanded with a second connection separate to the actual control system. 
You mentioned edge devices?
Müller Yes. Coupling sensors and actuators to an edge device opens up completely new possibilities. The further processing and networking can happen locally or in the cloud. What data does the customer output? That's entirely up to him! 
That brings us to the topic of data security. Are your customers willing to disseminate their data these days? 
Müller That depends on the data and, of course, also the added value that can be generated from it. At a fundamental level, however, it’s mostly not about “giving away” their data but rather about adequately protecting the data against unauthorized access or use for a purpose that was not agreed. As a foundation member of the International Data Spaces Association, we are actively engaging with this issue. We are working together with a number of partners to guarantee the secure handling of data.  
Mr Müller, many thanks for these exciting insights into the digital world of SICK. 
Müller My pleasure!


Christoph Müller

Senior Vice President Product Management  Industrial Integration Space

Christoph Müller is responsible for Product Management and Marketing for the Global Business Center Industrial Integration Space, and thus all SICK's activities involving vertical integration and data-based solutions for Industry 4.0.

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