The Secret Agents of Industry 4.0

Sensors are the eyes and ears of Industry 4.0. Without them, the promise of networked factory production enabled by the Internet of Things would be empty. Here’s how these tiny, hidden components are transforming the future.

February, 2018

They control the brightness on our smartphones, allow cars to drive themselves and even help to navigate robots on Mars. But these little helpers are rarely ever seen or given the credit they deserve. “Sensors are the sensory organs of systems and machines,” says Thomas Ruf from the manufacturer First Sensor.

When a vehicle drives autonomously through a factory warehouse, for instance, 3D sensors are its “eyes” directing its path. Sensors are by their very nature ultra-sensitive and must be made in special “clean rooms”.

Sensors are present in all types of new technology, from Smart Cities to Industry 4.0. By the year 2022, the worldwide market is forecast to be worth $240.3bn a year, according to BBC Research. By comparison, the market was valued at $123.5bn in 2016. Nearly 90 per cent of the members of the Association for Sensors and Measurement Technology (AMA) believe that industrial applications will play a key role in rising sales.

Electronics workers checking components in clean room laboratory | © Cultura RF/Getty Images

Sensors and IoT are intertwined

In recent years, according to the AMA’s estimates, the German sensor and measuring technology industry has generated around €35bn. The export rate increased to nearly 60 per cent in 2016, and was over 70 per cent when sensors built into machines and products were included. Overall, AMA members are confident that Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT) will keep driving healthy growth.

In the future, sensors will also be able to indicate when machines require maintenance. For example, they can register the vibrations or noises made by a system, explains Nico Zobel, who runs the Process Industry 4.0 department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF). Then the search for patterns begins: for example, which vibrations cause breakdowns, and when? With this technology, sensors could detect when urgent action is required to avoid further complications or failures.

But sensor technology and Industry 4.0 are not necessarily just about new technological developments. From high-tech and heavy machinery to transportation vehicles to white goods, increasing demand for technological efficiencies has been driving the change. What is new is networking. Sensor data from similar facilities can be ana¬lyzed together during a networked production cycle, explains Nico Zobel. Other systems within the network will benefit from the experiences of one system. A standardized interface on the internet for all sensors would optimize interoperability, and this might be one of the defining characteristics of 4.0.

Every year, sensors become smarter, more powerful, more energy-efficient and smaller. A key trend for industry is that sensor technologies will increasingly be integrated into machines. These silent and unseen agents will continue to perform a vital role in driving the economy.