5 Ways Flexible Manufacturing has Never Been Easier

Flexible manufacturing has never been easier or more cost effective to implement, even down to lot-size-one, now that IO-Link has become an accepted standard. Fixed control and buried information is no longer acceptable. Driven by the needs of IIoT and Industry 4.0, IO-Link provides the additional data that unlocks the flexibility in modern automation equipment, and it’s here now!  As evidence, here are the top five examples of IO-Link enabled flexibility:

#5. Quick Change Tooling: The technology of inductive coupling connects standard IO-Link devices through an airgap. Change parts and End of Arm (EOA) tooling can quickly and reliably be changed and verified while maintaining connection with sensors and pneumatic valves. This is really cool technology…power through the air!



#4. On-the-fly Sensors Programming: Many sensor applications require new settings when the target changes, and the targets seem to always change. IO-Link enables this at minimal cost and very little time investment. It’s just built in.

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#3. Flexible Indicator Lights: Detailed communication with the operators no long requires a traditional HMI. In our flexible world, information such as variable process data, timing indication, machine status, run states and change over verification can be displayed at the point of use. This represents endless creativity possibilities.

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#2. Low cost RFID: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been around for a while. But with the cost point of IO-Link, the applications have been rapidly climbing. From traditional manufacturing pallets to change-part tracking, the ease and cost effectiveness of RFID is at a record level. If you have ever thought about RFID, now is the time.



#1. Move Away from Discrete to Continuously Variable Sensors: Moving from discrete, on-off sensors to continuously variable sensors (like analog but better) opens up tremendous flexibility. This eliminates multiple discrete sensors or re-positioning of sensors. One sensor can handle multiple types and sizes of products with no cost penalty. IO-Link makes this more economical than traditional analog with much more information available. This could be the best technology shift since the move to Ethernet based I/O networks.


So #1 was the move to Continuously Variable sensors using IO-Link. But the term, “Continuously Variable” doesn’t just roll off the tongue. We have discrete and analog sensors, but what should we call these sensors? Let me know your thoughts!

To learn more about RFID and IO-Link technology, visit www.balluff.com.




Capture vs Control – The Hidden Value of True IIoT Solutions

A few months ago a customer and I met to discuss their Industry 4.0 & IIoT pilot project.  We discussed technology options and ways to collect data from the existing manufacturing process.  Options like reading the data directly from the PLC or setting up an OPC service to request machine data were discussed; however these weren’t preferable as it required modifying the existing PLC code to make the solution effective.  “What I really want is the ability to capture the data from the devices directly and not impact the control of my existing automation equipment.”  Whether his reason was because of machine warranty conflicts or the old adage, “don’t fix what ain’t broke” the general opinion makes sense.

Capture versus Control.

This concept really stuck with me months after our visit that day.  This is really one of the core demands we have from the data generation part of the IIoT equation; how can we get information without negatively impacting our automated production systems?  This is where the convergence of the operational OT and network IT becomes critical.  I’ve now had to build an IT understanding of the fundamentals of how data is transferred in Ethernet; and build an understanding of new-to-me data protocols like JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) and MQTT.  The value of these protocols allows for a direct request from the device-that-has-the-data to the device-that-needs-the-data without a middleman.  These IT based protocols eliminate the need for a control-based data-transport solution!


So then truly connected IIoT automation solutions that are “Ready for IIoT” need to support this basic concept of “Capture versus Control.”  We have a strong portfolio of products with Industrial Internet of Things capabilities, check them out at www.balluff.com.

Tool Identification in Metalworking

With the start of industry 3.0 (the computer based automation of production) the users of machine tools began to avoid routine work like manually entering tool data into the HMI.  Computerized Numerical Controlled CNC machine tools gained more and more market share in metalworking applications.  These machines are quite often equipped with automatic tool change systems. For a correct production the real tool dimensions need to be entered into the CNC to define the tool path.

Tool ID for Automatic and Reliable Data Handling

Rather than entering the real tool diameter and tool length manually into the CNC, this data may be measured by a tool pre-setter and then stored in the RFID tool chip via an integrated RFID read-/write system. Typically when the tool is entered in the tool magazine the tool data are read by another read-/ write system which is integrated in the machine tool.

Globally in most cases the RFID tool chips are mounted in the tool holder (radially mounted eg. in SK or HSK holders).

In some applications the RFID tool chips are mounted in the pull stud (which holds the tool in the tool holder). Especially in Japan this tag position is used.

Tool Data for Different Levels of the Automation Pyramid

The tool data like tool diameters and tool lengths are relevant for the control level to guarantee a precise production of the workpieces.  Other data like planned and real tool usage times are relevant for industrial engineering and quality control to e.g. secure a defined surface finish of the workpieces.  Industrial engineers perform milling and optimization tests (with different rotational spindle speeds and tool feed rates) in order to find the perfect tool usage time as a balance between efficiency and quality.  These engineering activities typically are on the supervision level.  The procurement of new tools (when the existing tools are worn out after e.g.  5 to 10 grinding cycles) is conducted via the ERP System as a part of the asset management.


Coming back to the beginning of the 3rd industrial revolution the concept of CIM (Computer Integrated Manufacturing) was created, driven by the integration of computers and information technology (IT).

With the 4th industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, the success story of the Internet now adds cyber physical systems to industrial production.  Cloud systems support and speed up the communication between customers and suppliers.  Tool Management covers two areas of the Automation pyramid.

  1. Machine Control: From sensor / actuator level up to the control level (real time )
  2. Asset Management: Up to enterprise level and beyond (even to the “Cloud”)

To learn more about Tool ID visit www.balluff.com

Identification technology for Work In Process applications is evolving

wipI have had countless conversations over the years regarding barcode vs RFID. Most of those discussions I explained that both technologies have their own unique set of features and benefits and it is rarely the case where they are competing. I still stand by that general argument except when it applies to Work In Process applications. Looking back over the last four to six years there is evidence of a major evolution from barcode to RFID in the production process.

I guess the next question is why is this happening? I am not sure I have the definite answer, but there are a couple consistent factors that tend to come up when we are installing RFID in place of barcode:

Automation – True automation means there are no manual processes. When an operator has to pull a trigger on a barcode scanner the scan is not automated. Even with fixed barcode readers the barcode will sometimes need to be presented to the reader by an operator holding the part. With fixed RFID scanners the part is automatically scanned even without a direct line of sight and even in poor lighting conditions.

ROI – At first glance a barcode solution may seem to be more cost effective than RFID. However, things that need to be taken into account when going the barcode route are: specialized lighting, data management, longevity of the barcode in a harsh environment, etc. With RFID the tags can be read in complete darkness, the data can be managed locally, and the tags are built to survive harsh conditions. In addition, the cost of paper RFID labels has become manageable in the last couple years.

This is definitely something I will be keeping my eye on going forward. With a renewed focus on automation, identification technology will become more and more important as we move toward true automation.

To learn more about industrial RFID systems visit www.balluff.us.

How can I convince my boss to send me to training?

trainingWith responsibilities expanding, resources declining, and margins narrowing, companies today must scrutinize every dollar spent. Bad decisions are often based on bad data. An informed decision, on the other hand, can be defended in the light of the facts. In this article, we examine three misconceptions –  misconceptions which too often lead to poor decisions about training.

  1. If I train my people, they will leave.

In today’s companies where people change positions frequently, training is seen as a risky investment.  The correct perspective is seeing the risk involved in NOT training your people.  Do you really want your people making costly mistakes by the trial-and-error method of on-the-job training? Lack of training does not just affect the untrained person. Those that have been trained and are doing the job correctly often get pulled aside to explain procedures to the untrained. The bottom line is that people are going to be trained one way or another. What is the most efficient way to do this?

  1. I can’t afford the downtime to send my people to training.

Tools need to be sharpened.  This means they can’t be “productive” 100% of the time.  “Productivity” needs to be seen as a totally different thing from being “busy.”   Once a tool is sharpened, it is far more productive.  A dull tool can be “busy” 100 % of the time accomplishing nothing of value.  The correct perspective then is that you can’t afford the loss of productivity caused by a lack of training.

  1. All training offered out there is basically the same, so just take the cheapest one.

Training is not a one-way dump of information.  Training means that a change has taken place in a cognitive domain, an affective domain, or a psychomotor domain.  For automation companies, these three domains are intricately linked.  For example, it is not enough to just sit through a safety presentation:  you need to know the safety regulations (cognitive), you need to be passionate about why these are important (affective), and you need the skill necessary to implement these regulations by specifying, configuring, and integrating systems (psychomotor).

The best way to train in the psychomotor domain is through hands-on training.  Students learn skills best by practicing those skills.  For many companies who offer training, training is just a presentation of ideas without the necessary opportunity for participants to try anything for themselves. At Balluff, we have made a substantial investment in equipment, an investment in writing courseware properly, and an investment in training those who conduct the training with platform skills, adult learning skills, and teaching skills.  These investments make world-class, performance-based training available to our customers.

To see all that Balluff has to offer in Automation Training, click on our training web page link:  http://www.balluff.com/local/us/workshops/training/

Upgrade Sensors…Upgrade Automation Performance


In many cases, the mechanical components of an older machine can basically operate forever.  Critical surfaces can be remachined, and bearings and gears can be replaced again and again to restore lost accuracy and repeatability.

But what about the control system?  Sometimes older machines are retrofitted with a new controller to enhance its productivity and extend its useful life.  Such refits should not stop with the controller alone.  Many of the greatest improvements in machine performance can be obtained by upgrading the entire sensor package as well.  Sensors are at the heart of today’s automation systems.  They provide the critical information and feedback about what the system is doing, and the status and condition of products being handled and produced.

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