Industry 4.0: Cabling a revolution

As Industry 4.0 continues to form the focus of many seminars, conferences and exhibitions, Justin Leonard, director at igus, asks: “How will the ‘smart factory’ concept become a reality?”


he adoption process for Industry 4.0 concepts has begun and industry is

already feeling the benefits in terms of cost and risk reductions, performance improvements and enhanced flexibility. This is especially true in the automotive industry, and other high volume manufacturing, where innovative Industry 4.0 tools have already been applied. However, the desire to manufacture custom products quickly and inexpensively also makes Industry 4.0 attractive for low volume manufacturing. Fundamental to this is the realisation of an intelligent, networked cyber-physical system (CPS) that links all levels of the value chain in real-time, not only in the production environment, but throughout all internal and external communication channels - from incoming orders, to design, customisation and delivery. To support this, platforms for enterprise IT (Information Technology) i.e. the office, and OT (Operational Technology) i.e. the factory floor, are now converging. Traditionally built on separate technology stacks, protocols and standards, the world of OT is progressively adopting IT-like technologies that meet the ruggedness and reliability standards that the industry demands. The share of installed Industrial Ethernet nodes is increasing steadily, with every device manufacturer now offering Ethernet interfaces in their portfolio. Levels of automation will continue to rise

and this inevitably demands higher levels of reliability across the system – right down to each machine’s moving parts. Under these dynamic conditions, the traditional Ethernet cables currently designed for fixed installations can only achieve very limited service lives. In addition, machine builders are increasingly downsizing the footprint of


their equipment, driving for more and more compact designs. The volume of data required for Industry 4.0 will only increase - and it is likely that EMC protection, as well as the speed and length limitations of copper-based cables, will become more of an issue. Fibre optic cables enable system- independent safe communication. If households of today are already equipped with fibre-to-home connections in major cities, then why settle for less in the industrial environment? Fibre optic cables, tested for millions of strokes in small bend radius that are twistable for 3D robotics applications, provide a compelling alternative to copper. Another challenge for machine builders is

reducing the vibration of machine components, which not only reduces factory noise significantly, but can dramatically improve the accuracy of the manufacturing process. Otherwise, surface quality, and dimensional and geometrical accuracies of the machined work piece, can be adversely affected. At the same time, process stability can be reduced which can lead to low manufacturing quality, faster tool wear and costly machine downtime. Low vibration energy chains are often

overlooked in the battle against machine vibration. When the energy supply system rolls, a polygon effect can occur – that is, the chain doesn’t roll in a perfect arc – which results in vibrations that can lead to high oscillation amplitudes and even resonance. Most producers of high-quality energy chains rely on a small chain link pitch to reduce the polygon effect. The more advanced energy cables pursue

this same design principle, but instead use an elastic spring interconnect for chain links, which improves arc shape and results in extremely low noise for almost

vibration-free running of the energy chain. The more mass that needs to be

accelerated, the more energy is required. Hence, lightweight construction is becoming critical for manufacturers of machine tools, particularly for highly dynamic applications. To drive the alternating strokes of an energy chain, driving power is applied in the form of a push-pull force. Lightweight energy chains can be up to 30 per cent lighter than conventional ones, yet can offer the same robust and reliable qualities. They are already contributing to energy efficiency through lower power consumption, leading to smaller drive requirements. Another key application pillar for Industry

4.0 is automated condition monitoring and predictive maintenance, which can help manufacturers increase plant availability, maximise uptime and reduce costs. By embedding networking and intelligence into its ‘smart plastics’, via the addition of sensing and monitoring capabilities, igus is helping manufacturers deliver these benefits through this evolution of its proven cable and energy chain products. Intelligent cables and energy chains continuously monitor themselves, providing real-time sensor measurements, performance data and early warning of critical wear. These measurements are referenced against the parameters of the system and aggregated test data from the extensive igus test laboratory database to reliably predict service life. Alerts are sent when values exceed thresholds, allowing timely maintenance, or replacement. Machine builders will benefit by taking a

closer look at their communications network. Selecting the right cables and energy chains will help improve service life and process reliability, in addition to realising the cost and risk reductions, performance improvements and flexibility that Industry 4.0 promises.



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