Safe control technology for smart factories

SICK Pty Ltd

By Frank Triem, Product Manager for Industrial Safety Systems, SICK AG, Waldkirch
Wednesday, 07 September, 2016

Safe control technology for smart factories

By automating, integrating and networking processes, implementing Industry 4.0 opens up a whole new level of flexibility and transparency in production. Industrial safety technology plays a key role in this, as it allows humans and machines to interact with each other in smart factories without any accidents. Migration capability, simple project planning and configuration, openness to intelligent safety concepts and the ability to adapt to the future are all requirements for safety solutions when it comes to Industry 4.0 — features that are fully applicable to SICK’s range of safe Flexi Soft control solutions.

The modular Flexi Soft is suitable for use in smart factories for a number of reasons. In the future, it will be fundamentally suited to providing seamless solutions from sensors or switches in the field to the data world of the cloud and the applications located there. Various gateways open up numerous possibilities for integration into every common fieldbus environment. Its functionalities and their flexible configuration options are complemented by intelligent safety concepts: Flexi Line for networking individual machines and plant modules with safety technology; Flexi Loop for cascading dual-channel safety switches and sensors; and Motion Control for safety-related drive monitoring. In this way, and in keeping with the meaning of Industry 4.0, both the safety controller and the safety concepts ensure maximum plant availability and safety; for example, by means of predictive maintenance.

A modular solution that supports migration and adds value

The SICK Flexi Soft has flexibility and user-friendliness. Users can combine various I/O and relay modules, as well as fieldbus gateways, with one another to suit the application, creating a custom and compact solution no matter which of the many different forms the end configuration takes. Every Flexi Soft configuration can also be scaled at a later stage, meaning that users can add additional functionalities such as a Flexi Soft Drive Monitor for monitoring drives.

Another of Flexi Soft’s special features is the EFI (enhanced function interface), which the safety controller can use to read out sensor data, receive warning messages or switch safety laser scanner protective fields, for example. Flexi Soft is also suited to controlling and monitoring a whole range of contact-based and non-contact safety sensors and actuators, safety door switches, emergency switching-off devices, two-hand control systems, testable photoelectric sensors, safety light curtains and safety laser scanners.

Connectivity up to the secure data room of the future

Due to this seamless structure, the Flexi Soft safety controller allows users to use sensor, status and process data from sensors and safety concepts in higher automation levels for diagnostics purposes in the context of Industry 4.0. Furthermore, due to a multitude of industry-standard fieldbus gateways, users already have the basic option of providing and using this information in the cloud for targeted remote maintenance operations or setting up predictive maintenance concepts, for example.

However, using this option in the future will require clarification of the ownership and usage rights of the data in terms of both technology and the law. This is why SICK has been a committed founding member of the Industrial Data Space e.V. since the beginning. The success of Industry 4.0 will depend on clear, reliably regulated ownership rights, and companies will only provide data for Industry 4.0 if they are able to place their absolute trust in the data room security. Safety technology will especially benefit from such data rooms, as its seamless solutions from the field to the cloud can only offer safety if the security of the data is also guaranteed.

Planning complex projects without a hitch

It does not matter when such data rooms will actually become a reality, as the Flexi Soft Designer project planning software from SICK is already available to download for free at This software ensures that even complex tasks can be completed quickly and successfully. Configuration at the click of a mouse and drag-and-drop wiring allow project developers to intuitively create elaborate and comprehensive safety applications in a matter of minutes. After clicking through the logic editor, the next step is to set up and test the programming and functionalities of the safety application quickly and integrate them into the automation environment. The Flexi Soft Designer provides support for this too. The simulation mode makes it possible to perform initial configuration testing and diagnostics right at the designer’s desk. Not only that, but the Flexi Soft Designer automatically generates a wiring diagram, which effectively supports and simplifies commissioning, as well as a multilingual report for creating the machine documentation.

Networked safety for flexibility and productivity

SICK is developing the Flexi Soft platform further with a range of intelligent safety concepts, acting on two pioneering trends in the market for industrial safety technology.

For instance, the Flexi Line interface of the Flexi Soft safety controller provides a simple yet efficient method of connecting modular machine elements — even if they come from different manufacturers. The interface allows you to connect up to 32 Flexi Soft stations safely (‘safe in line’) and link safety functions using multiple machines. With regard to smart factories, Flexi Line supports flexible and modular machine concepts for custom production processes and individual customer requirements. Depending on how the production or commissioning process needs to proceed, it is possible to replace individual machine modules, integrate new modules into the overall plant or combine modules in new ways. Additionally, individual plant components can be disconnected from the safety and control elements of the machine network for maintenance purposes if necessary — an efficient way of maintaining modules within linked systems.

Integrating safety switches using cascading

Cascaded safety switches and sensors in one line and with a safe switching input — that is the idea behind the remote Flexi Loop safety concept. As part of a safety-related control solution from SICK, this concept makes it possible to connect up to eight sensor cascades, each with up to 32 dual-channel safety switches and safety sensors, directly to various safety controller extension modules without unnecessary costs. What’s more, the diagnostics information from the sensors can, in principle, also be made usable in the cloud via gateways. The integration possibilities are versatile: it is possible to use electromechanical and magnetic safety switches, safety sensors with monitored semiconductor outputs, pushbuttons, lamps and guard controls; safe sensors and standard sensors can be evaluated on the input side and standard actuators can be evaluated on the output side; and safety-related switches and sensors from different manufacturers can be integrated. But the feature that makes the system really easy to use is the plug-and-play capability of the SICK switches and sensors, which come ready-prepared with M12 male connectors and appropriate pin assignments for Flexi Loop.

From a technical and economic standpoint, sensor cascading with Flexi Loop is particularly useful for machines with a high number of safety sensors for monitoring doors, protective flaps, covers and emergency stop pushbuttons. The supply and communication paths between the individual nodes can be as long as 100 m. Unlike conventional series connection, Flexi Loop also has the considerable advantage that consequential errors in the sensor line can be clearly identified and located in the loop rather than being ‘masked’. As a result, switch and sensor cascading with Flexi Loop never fails to meet the requirements set for performance level PL e as defined in DIN EN ISO 13849-1 when used with compatible devices. Furthermore, this allows maintenance and repair work to be performed quickly at targeted locations — keeping the duration and, therefore, cost of machine downtimes to a minimum and optimising availability.

Intelligent solutions for safe drive and motion monitoring

Intelligent machine drive monitoring is particularly important during set-up, maintenance and repair operations in smart factories. The Safe Motion Control product portfolio from SICK offers safe yet economical solutions for this — including a speed monitor, a standstill monitor and a drive monitor with a multitude of standard-compliant functions for safe drive monitoring, even in multi-axis applications. By safely monitoring the machine parameters of speed, travel and acceleration, it is possible to draw an exact distinction between the machine movements that are dangerous and those that are safe. Safe Motion Control detects whether machine operators are actually in danger when they enter or create an interruption in a hazardous area. If this is not the case — for example, when set-up or maintenance operations are monitored reliably — the processes are not interrupted.

SICK’s user-friendly Flexi Soft Designer software and its numerous motion modules make designing and configuring even safe drive solutions a easy. Safe Motion Control opens up a multitude of possibilities for integrated and economic drive and motion monitoring solutions with state-of-the-art safety technology: the Flexi Soft safety controller extension modules meet safety levels PL e as per EN ISO 13849, SIL3 as per IEC 61508 and SIL3CL as per EN 62061. As SICK also has sensors that are not safety-oriented (encoders or motor feedback systems, for example), a complete safety application including drive monitoring can be provided from a single source.

Further developing the platform

When it comes to the implementation of safety-related strategies and concepts for smart factories, a secure data room is synonymous with the ability to adapt to the future. It is equally important to be able to anticipate and implement future product and system requirements. As a result of this, Flexi Soft will be sporting major further developments in the foreseeable future, including an analog module for the integration of distance, pressure and temperature sensors, a new concept for safely networking controls and sensors, and additional motion control functionalities.

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