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.