Control Meets IIoT, Providing Insights into a New World

In manufacturing and automation control, the programmable logic controller (PLC) is an essential tool. And since the PLC is integrated into the machine already, it’s understandable that you might see the PLC as all that you need to do anything in automation on the manufacturing floor.

Condition monitoring in machine automation

For example, process or condition monitoring is emerging as an important automation feature that can help ensure that machines are running smoothly. This can be done by monitoring motor or mechanical vibration, temperature or pressure. You can also add functionality for a machine or line configuration or setup by adding sensors to verify fixture locations for machine configuration at changeovers.

One way to do this is to wire these sensors to the PLC and modify its code and use it as an all-in-one device. After all, it’s on the machine already. But there’s a definite downside to using a PLC this way. Its processing power is limited, and there are limits to the number of additional processes and functions it can run. Why risk possible complications that could impact the reliability of your control systems? There are alternatives.

External monitoring and support processes

Consider using more flexible platforms, such as an edge gateway, Linux, and IO-Link. These external sources open a whole new world of alternatives that provide better reliability and more options for today and the future. It also makes it easier to access and integrate condition monitoring and configuration data into enterprise IT/OT (information technology/operational technology) systems, which PLCs are not well suited to interface with, if they can be integrated at all.

Here are some practical examples of this type of augmented or add-on/retrofit functionality:

      • Motor or pump vibration condition monitoring
      • Support-process related pressure, vibration and temperature monitoring
      • Monitoring of product or process flow
      • Portable battery based/cloud condition monitoring
      • Mold and Die cloud-based cycle/usage monitoring
      • Product changeover, operator guidance system
      • Automatic inventory monitoring warehouse system

Using external systems for these additional functions means you can readily take advantage of the ever-widening availability of more powerful computing systems and the simple connectivity and networking of smart sensors and transducers. Augmenting and improving your control systems with external monitoring and support processes is one of the notable benefits of employing Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 tools.

The ease of with which you can integrate these systems into IT/OT systems, even including cloud-based access, can dramatically change what is now available for process information-gathering and monitoring and augment processes without touching or effecting the rudimentary control system of new or existing machines or lines. In many cases, external systems can even be added at lower price points than PLC modification, which means they can be more easily justified for their ROI and functionality.

Level Sensing in Machine Tools

Certainly the main focus in machine tools is on metal cutting or metal forming processes.

To achieve optimum results in cutting processes coolants and lubricants are applied. In both metal cutting and metal forming processes hydraulic equipment is used (as hydraulics create high forces in compact designs). For coolant, lubricant and hydraulic tanks the usage of level sensors to monitor the tank level of these liquids is required.

Point Level Sensing

For point level sensing (switching output) in many cases capacitive sensors are used. These sensors detect the change of the relative electric permittivity (typically a change of factor 10 from gas to liquid). The capacitive sensors may be mounted at the outside of the tank wall if the tank material is non metallic like e.g. plastic or glass. The installation may even be in retrofit applications yet limited to non metallic tanks up to a certain wall thickness.

When using metal tanks the capacitive sensors enter the inner area of the tank via a thread and a sealing component. Common thread sizes are: M12x1, M18x1, M30x1,5, G 1/4″, NPT 1/4″ etc. For conductive liquids specially designed capacitive level sensors may be used which ignore build up at the sensing surface.

Continuous Level Sensing

Advanced process control uses continuous level sensing principles. The continuous sensor signals e.g. 0..10V, 4…20mA or increasingly IO-Link deliver more information to better control the liquid level, especially relevant in dynamic or precise applications.

When using floats the magnetostrictive sensing principle offers very high resolution of the level value. Tank heights vary from typically 200 mm up to several meters. Another advantage of this sensor principle is the high update rate (supporting fast closed loop systems for level sensing)

In many applications the  requirements for the level control solutions are not too demanding. In these cases the ultrasonic principle has gained significant market share within the last years. Ultrasonic sensors do not need a float, installation on the top of the tank is pretty easy, there are even sensor types available which may be used in pressurized tanks (typically up to 6 bar). As ultrasonic sensors quite often are used in special applications, field tests during the design in process are recommended.

Finally hydrostatic pressure transducers are an option for level sensing when using non pressurized tanks (typically  connected to ambient pressure through a bore in the upper area of the tank). With the sensor mounted at the bottom of the tank the level is indirectly measured through the pressure of the liquid column above the sensor (e.g. 10m of water level resembles 1 bar).


Concerning level sensing in metalworking applications in the first step it should be decided whether point level sensing is sufficient or continuous level sensing is required. Having chosen continuous level sensing there are several sensor principles available (selection depending on the application needs and features of the liquids and tank properties). It is always a good engineering practice to prove the preselected sensing concept with field tests.

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Acids Can Put Your Sensors in a Pickle

In many types of metals production, pickling is a process that is essential to removing impurities and contaminants from the surface of the material prior to further processing, such as the application of anti-corrosion coatings.

In steel production, two common pickling solutions or pickle liquors are hydrochloric acid (HCl) and sulfuric acid (H2SO4). Both of these acids are very effective at removing rust and iron oxide scale from the steel prior to additional processing, for example galvanizing or rolling. The choice of acid depends on the processing temperature, the type of steel being processed, and environmental containment and recovery considerations. Hydrochloric acid creates corrosive fumes when heated, so it typically must be used at lower temperatures where processing times are longer. It is also more expensive to recover when spent. Sulfuric acid can be used at higher temperatures for faster processing, but it can attack the base metal more aggressively and create embrittlement due to hydrogen diffusion into the metal.

Acids can be just as tough on all of the equipment involved in the pickling lines, including sensors. When selecting sensors for use in areas involving liquid acid solutions and gaseous fumes and vapors, care must be given to the types of acids involved and to the materials used in the construction of the sensor, particularly the materials that may be in direct contact with the media.

A pressure sensor specifically designed for use with acidic media, at temperatures up to 125° C.

A manufacturer of silicon steel was having issues with frequent failure of mechanical pressure sensors on the pickling line, due to the effects of severe corrosion from hydrochloric acid at 25% concentration. After determination of the root cause of these failures and evaluation of alternatives, the maintenance team selected an electronic pressure sensor with a process connection custom-made from PVDF (polyvinylidene fluoride), a VitonTM O-ring, and a ceramic (rather than standard stainless steel) pressure diaphragm. This changeover eliminated the corroded mechanical pressure sensors as an ongoing maintenance problem, increasing equipment availability and freeing up maintenance personnel to address other issues on the line.