In addition to improving production processes, the use of IoT technology in the industrial field can prove to be of great importance in improving the quality of production and the product itself. For this purpose, the use of specialized sensors is fundamental: sensors with very distinctive specificities that are inserted at the level of machinery or production line in addition to the existing ones.
Due to their nature, the vast majority of production machines are born already sensorized, because the computer (PLC) that governs and controls the specific industrial process carried out by a machine is based on a whole series of sensors inside the machine itself to perform at best its production schedule.
The real opportunity linked to the IoT in the factory is actually related to the possibility of adding specialized sensors that are aimed at controlling and optimizing the quality of production. Quality is a term that encompasses various meanings and, at the same time, also various expectations. What interests us in this context is the meaning linked to compliance with production requirements. That is to say the guarantee that the product has the properties and structural characteristics suitable for satisfying customer needs.
Therefore improving the quality of production means gathering useful information to better understand your production process in order to be able to carry out corrective actions in real time (during production) or decide and implement improvement actions after a more in-depth analysis of even historical data, through industrial analytics.
This path is not always simple or easy. There is a great variety of industrial environments, which strictly depend on the production environment for which they must operate and are characterized by factors (physical and environmental) that make the digitization and sensorization of production lines complex. There are various levels of complexity, for example linked to the fact that many production machines are digitized for the sole purpose of the production process and have not been designed to be extended with additional sensors. Other factors of complexity are of an environmental nature or concern the integration with factory systems.
In this context, it is evident that in the digitalization of the production world, technological choices play a key role, together with industrial analytics, in a correct planning of goals, the choice of the right technological partners and a careful integration of the IT and OT components.
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IoT: specialized sensors to improve production and product quality
The digitalization of the industrial sector and the acceleration linked to the use of IoT technologies are a great opportunity to improve the production quality. In this context, technological choices play a key role, together with industrial analytics, in the correct planning of objectives, in making the right choice of technological partners and in the careful integration of IT and OT components.
Ever since its advent several years ago, the Internet of Things has had quite a disruptive impact on the industrial and manufacturing world. The Italian reality, where 92% of all businesses are medium or small enterprises, presents an extremely varied scenario where there is no lack of examples of excellence and digital innovation, which usually translate into market success on a national as well as international level.
The IoT has not only become an important tool for knowing and monitoring the progress of production processes with the aim of improving times and costs, but it is also a fundamental factor capable of concretely helping companies to improve quality, both in terms of procedures and end products. All this was possible thanks to the additional information obtained from special sensors which, when properly designed and integrated, shed light on non-evident aspects and act as an essential source of information, pivotal in the optimization and improvement of production. The benefits are reflected not only on manufacturing companies but also on their end customers.
The current scenario
As of today, most of manufacturing enterprises are characterized by a highly diversified production systems, often not yet digitized or, although digital at the control level, not yet connected. The connection process (connected machines) allows for the interaction with the production equipment. This has the objective of collecting valuable data for monitoring the effectiveness of a production system in real time. From actual availability times, working speed and error rate (the so-called OEE index – Overall Equipment Effectiveness), to digital feedback capability, the ability to control the modification, automatic or otherwise, of the operating parameters right from the production control systems (MES) thanks to the digital connection. The data collected and used in real time are also filed so that they can be analyzed in order to obtain useful information for process planning and optimization, such as analysis on trends, deviation and recurring errors, as well as correlations between issues and possible causes (or contributing causes): this is what industrial analysts do.
Production equipment and sensors
One of the most interesting aspects related to the digitalization of machines and processes is certainly the so-called sensorization, i.e. the possibility of introducing in a singular machine or in the entire production line, one or more specific sensors with the aim of improving the production quality.
In reality, the vast majority of machines are already sensorized by their very nature: that is because the computer (PLC), which commands and controls the specific industrial process carried out by a certain piece of equipment, uses a number of sensors installed inside the machine itself to best perform its production program.
In terms of IoT and factories, the real opportunity comes from the possibility of adding special sensors to control and optimize the quality of production. Quality, a term that has been extensively used in recent years, encompasses various meanings, each with several different expectations. In this context, what we are interested in is the meaning linked to the compliance with production requirements, that is to say the guarantee that the product has the properties and structural characteristics suitable for satisfying customer needs. Improving the quality of production, therefore, means gathering useful information to better understand production process in order to make improvements and take corrective actions in real time (during production) or after a more in-depth analysis of the data, including historical ones, carried out by industrial analysts.
Examples of sensorization
The sensors that can be installed in a production line can be of various types. For example:
- thermal cameras, which allow you to monitor and measure the temperature of products during the different processing stages, obtaining high resolution and high refresh rate thermo-graphic images, even of moving objects, or identify hot-spots or cold-spots. These can be used, for instance, in the glass industry: they could be useful to check the processes and identify possible anomalies in the production of bottles, jars, test tubes, glass panes. Similarly, they can be adopted in metal production (in the automotive sector, for example), in the rubber industry (vulcanization), in the production of plastic products through thermoforming processes (in the production of panels or other objects, even with complex shapes) and so on
- profilometers (based on laser scanners or time-of-flight technology), which allow for the measurement of a product’s surface profile while also monitoring the trend of this value over time. They can be used, for example, to verify the evenness or defectiveness of a flat surface, to assess how the value measured along a certain axes changes over time, to measure the distance between assembled products (such as doors and bonnet relative to the body of a car) or to measure specific profiles (such as tire treads); they can even be used in micro-mechanical manufacturing and for checking external welding or the positioning of components in a circuit board, all areas that require extreme precision
- stereoscopic cameras, which make it possible to obtain and analyze three-dimensional images of products or of specific parts. The ability to recreate 3D images, which is not unlike human sight in nature, is extremely useful, for example, for inspecting a product and checking characteristics such as positioning, assembly, shape or completeness. In quality control, for instance, they can be effectively implemented in tasks such as counting or checking the correct position of objects, measuring products (volume, surface area, thickness), verifying correct packaging and integrity of packages, both in terms of content and completeness, and identifying empty packages.
Other specific sensors can recognize and measure colors (with applications that verify correct association during assembly, color-matching, consistency in production over time), and so on.