“IT and automation technology are a continent”

Harald Wes­sels, Vice Pres­i­dent Product Man­age­ment at Pilz, takes a look into the future of safe automa­tion. What hap­pens if IT and automa­tion tech­nology become fur­ther entwined? In an inter­view, he talks about the oppor­tu­ni­ties and threats.

Mr Wessels, automation is in a state of transformation. What trends are you noticing?

In automa­tion we talk about three essen­tial core com­po­nents: sensor, con­trol and actu­ator tech­nology. In all three areas: com­po­nents should be smaller, they must become more effi­cient, and the quality and per­for­mance of the prod­ucts should improve. We keep an eye on these trends with each new product gen­er­a­tion. A cur­rent example from our com­pany is the safety locking device PSEN­m­lock mini. In com­par­ison with its pre­de­cessor PSEN­m­lock – as the name sug­gests – it takes into account the trend towards minia­tur­i­sa­tion and is approx­i­mately 60 per cent smaller, so it is ideal for space-crit­ical appli­ca­tions such as covers or flaps.

Another trend is data com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It also has a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on the effi­ciency and per­for­mance of the safety tech­nology.

You mean the trend to standardise data communication?

Exactly. The age of pro­pri­etary solu­tions is over. Simple con­nec­tivity is the goal. With sensor tech­nology, we rely on the com­mu­ni­ca­tion stan­dard IO-Link Safety for func­tional safety. It meets the com­mu­ni­ca­tion require­ments for the majority of sensor tech­nology. How­ever, when we talk about com­plex, safe sensor tech­nology, for imaging processes for example, then IO-Link Safety is not enough. Eth­ernet-based pro­to­cols such as PROFIsafe, CIP Safety and FSoE are an impor­tant alter­na­tive in this case. But here too, we need a uni­form stan­dard. Along­side IO-Link Safety, future automa­tion solu­tions from Pilz will also sup­port OPC UA FX and its facets. This is where we see the future.

“Along­side IO-Link Safety, our future automa­tion solu­tions will also sup­port OPC UA FX and its facets. This is where we see the future.”

Harald Wes­sels, Vice Pres­i­dent Product Man­age­ment at Pilz

We can use an example to illus­trate how his­tory is repeating itself at this point: many years ago we spoke about fieldbus pro­to­cols and their respec­tive advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages. Each pro­tocol had its own phys­ical char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as plug-in con­nector and cable. From a mechan­ical engi­neering per­spec­tive, this was really unsat­is­fac­tory. With the intro­duc­tion of switched Eth­ernet in the IT world, for some time now we have had an estab­lished trans­mis­sion tech­nology, which is extremely scal­able, simple to install and future-proof. Even the user groups for the fieldbus sys­tems have reg­is­tered this, and adapted this tech­nology as an alter­na­tive. As a result, tech­nolo­gies from the IT world have been adopted in the automa­tion world. In the con­text of OPC UA FX, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the automa­tion world are now working on spec­i­fi­ca­tions to fur­ther stan­dardise data trans­mis­sion, taking into con­sid­er­a­tion the needs of fac­tory and process automa­tion. Who would be sur­prised to hear that pro­to­cols and tech­nolo­gies that have been proven in the IT world for years are also being con­sid­ered.

Will the increasing data volume also lead to more safety sensor technology in production halls?

Let me answer the ques­tion like this: Sen­sors gen­erate data and data is becoming increas­ingly impor­tant. A sensor can not only supply infor­ma­tion about the state of the process (i.e. the actual aim, in order to auto­mate the machine), but can pro­vide fur­ther data, such as diag­nostic or oper­ating data for example, depending on the imple­men­ta­tion. And that brings us back to net­working. In order to exploit the poten­tial fur­ther, the data must be written and trans­ferred in a stan­dard­ised format, so that it is machine-read­able.

If data communication is standardised, where can customers distinguish between the offers available from individual suppliers?

In the user soft­ware. This will be the key dis­tin­guishing fea­ture in the future. How easy is it to use? How do I get to the machine data for fur­ther eval­u­a­tions? How easy is it to con­figure devices or set their para­me­ters? Sim­plicity, that’s the key­word in automa­tion at this point. Demo­graphic change comes into play here too, specif­i­cally the asso­ci­ated skills shortage. In future, the ability to design, engi­neer and operate a machine must not be lim­ited to highly qual­i­fied spe­cial­ists only. That means graphic ele­ments must be used to gen­erate appli­ca­tions or codes, for example. So we have quickly arrived at the trend for Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence (AI). This trend will cer­tainly influ­ence automa­tion in the future.

“Soft­ware will be the dis­tin­guishing fea­ture of the future.”

Harald Wes­sels, Vice Pres­i­dent Product Man­age­ment at Pilz

In your opinion, what influence will Artificial Intelligence have on functional safety?

We are looking very care­fully at what we can use from the field of Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, for us and our prod­ucts. How­ever, many func­tions are not trans­fer­able 1:1 to safety tech­nology. It will take a few more years before we can reli­ably use AI in the very sen­si­tive area of func­tional safety. How­ever, the direc­tion is clear: the IT world and its solu­tions will increas­ingly influ­ence what hap­pens in automa­tion tech­nology. As I said ear­lier, some tech­nolo­gies that also rep­re­sent added value for the automa­tion of plant and machinery have already been adopted. You cannot view infor­ma­tion tech­nology and automa­tion tech­nology as sep­a­rate islands. It is a con­ti­nent that links coun­tries.

What’s the position for Safety and Security? What’s happening here?

The same applies: func­tional safety and secu­rity, both belong together. The new Machinery Reg­u­la­tion makes that clear. Indus­trial Secu­rity on plant and machinery becomes manda­tory in 2027 at the latest. This is another sub­ject from the IT sector that is now becoming an OT issue. At the time of fieldbus tech­nolo­gies, nobody was inter­ested in cyber attacks or manip­u­la­tion from out­side, because the pro­to­cols were so indi­vidual – and there­fore of no interest to hackers. Now, how­ever, we have to look more and more at how we reli­ably pro­tect our stan­dard­ised data com­mu­ni­ca­tion and our increas­ingly net­worked plants from attacks. Wher­ever data is gen­er­ated, there is always someone saying: “I’d love to have that data”. So it is a secu­rity issue. And in a net­worked fac­tory, it’s true to say that: without secu­rity, safety can also no longer be guar­an­teed. That’s why it will cer­tainly remain a sub­ject to which we at Pilz will remain com­mitted, in the inter­ests of our cus­tomers – with our new Indus­trial Secu­rity Con­sulting Ser­vice, for example.

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