IO-Link integration

Next Level IO-Link with FieldEcho by SICK

Sick has developed the software tool 'FieldEcho' with the aim of closing existing integration gaps.

Sick closes the last IO-Link integration gap with a software tool

The use of IO-Link devices instead of parallel-wired analog sensors is characterized by higher performance with less effort. Cost savings of over 30 percent and time savings of up to 60 percent are real values resulting from automation. Measured values and data are transmitted interference-free via IO-Link. In addition, it is independent of controllers and fieldbus systems.

IO-Link has the potential to take factory automation to a new level. Despite all the advantages and potential of the technology, there was an integration gap that made the use of IO-Link difficult from the perspective of industrial companies. In an interview with RFID & Wireless IoT Global, Peter Kamp from SICK reports on how this gap has been closed.

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Advantages: What is IO-Link?

IO-Link is a globally standardized IO technology (IEC 61131-9) for bidirectional access to data from sensors and actuators via point-to-point communication. The communication uses the already established 3-wire sensor and actuator connection. IO-Link requires no additional cable material.

The standardized communication is not a fieldbus, but an evolutionary further development of existing connection technology for sensors and actuators in factory and logistics automation that has been tested many times in real applications. Field devices can be connected to a master device via IO-Link. IO-Link ensures uncomplicated, bidirectional signal and data exchange at the field level.

Challenges: The Integration of IO-Link

If IO-Link devices from different manufacturers are used, PLC programmers often have to use different tools to integrate all sensors and actuators. One approach frequently chosen in the past: Developers manually program access to IO-Link device data. Problem: In addition to the high time expenditure and the essential IO-Link know-how, the manual programming method is prone to errors.

If devices are to be replaced with those from another manufacturer, the control program must be adapted again. Furthermore, commissioning is made more difficult, but above all the cycle time of the PLC is extended, which can lead to significant performance losses, especially when using many IO-Link devices.

FieldEcho - Something Better Doesn't Exist

One Solution Integrates All IO-Link Device Types from All Manufacturers

Sick has developed the software tool 'FieldEcho' with the aim of closing existing integration gaps. The tool is designed to make the use of IO-Link devices as simple and as resource-saving as possible, thus reducing skepticism about complex integration. Above all, the tool is intended to make IO-Link data available for Industry 4.0 applications using standard IT methods. According to Sick, 'FieldEcho' is the first software solution that completely covers all requirements.

Automatic Integration

If the system-independent 'FieldEcho' is installed, the tool offers full access to all IO-Link device data. Data can be individually monitored via a browser and modified if necessary. 'FieldEcho' also allows for communication via a REST API to enable IO-Link data transmission in JSON format to ERP and MES systems.

The device descriptions (IODD) of connected IO-Link devices detected by 'FieldEcho' – regardless of manufacturer – are automatically downloaded and made available on the ports of the configured IO-Link masters. Manual downloads are no longer necessary.

First Reactions on the Market

The first version of 'FieldEcho' has been available on the market since April 2019. According to Peter Kamp, users particularly emphasize the aspects of functionality and usability.

An Interview with Peter Kamp

“With 'FieldEcho' it is no longer necessary to program the connection individually for each individual IO-Link device from a particular manufacturer and to manually search for and download the corresponding IODDs. The reduced programming and development effort to an absolute minimum is an enormous advantage for numerous global companies that already use the software tool in their automation environments.”

Mr. Kamp, why does the industry need IO-Link?

First of all, IO-Link is nothing more than a standardized bidirectional communication interface. The great benefit is evident in its direct application. In contrast to analog-connected sensors and actuators, there is no effort and cost for wiring. Standard 3-pole sensor cables can simply be reused.

The parameterization is done by using the IODD. Furthermore, extended diagnostic options are possible - from remote diagnostics at field device level to cable break detection. The decisive advantage of IO-Link is that systems can be reparameterized during operation. The result is reduced downtimes.

IO-Link has great potential to become a basic technology of Industry 4.0. Why is IO-Link not yet the leading standard in communication between controllers, sensors and actuators?

IO-Link is the future-proof standard for devices that are unable to accommodate an Ethernet interface due to their size or for cost reasons. The technology is globally standardized and reduces the integration effort to a minimum. Nevertheless, customers are constantly asking for a uniform tool for all IO-Link devices. It is perfectly common practice for companies in mechanical engineering, production plants or conveyor technology to use sensors and actuators from different manufacturers.

Until the release of 'FieldEcho' in the first quarter of 2019, there was no practical solution for parameterizing, diagnosing and monitoring devices from different manufacturers using a single tool. Access had to be programmed in a complex way, especially for parameterization or diagnosis. The effort required to use IO-Link devices was therefore high – too high for some companies that wanted to use numerous IO-Link devices. This should not become a major hurdle. As a result, we at Sick developed 'FieldEcho'.

What is the Main Feature of 'FieldEcho'?  

With 'FieldEcho', it is no longer necessary to program the connection individually for each IO-Link device from a particular manufacturer and to manually search for and download the corresponding IODDs. With full access to all IO-Link device data at all times via a Web browser or HMI, integrators need only a single line of PLC code that calls a generic function block supplied with the tool to send read/ write requests to the IO-Link devices.

Since communication is completely system-independent, it is possible to use different PLCs, fieldbuses, and IO-Link masters from different manufacturers. Currently, the most widely used controllers worldwide from Beckhoff, Mitsubishi, Rockwell Automation and Siemens are supported. The reduced effort for programming and development to an absolute minimum is an enormous advantage for numerous globally operating companies that already use the software tool in their automation environments.  

How can integrators and equipment manufacturers work with the tool?  

'FieldEcho' provides system integrators and machine manufacturers with a graphical, web-based user interface that is designed to be user-friendly. It can be opened with a browser and integrated into the HMI of a machine or system. All IO-Link devices can be visualized via a user interface.

Users can view the status of all IO-Link devices transparently in 'FieldEcho' and 'zoom' to individual device pages in the software to get a better overview of the device data, including device identification, device serial number, software version, device name and graphical images. Incoming and outgoing process data can be viewed and each IO Link device can also be fully parameterized.

We offer a number of advantages in any life cycle phase. During operation or during engineering, the machine manufacturer or control technician always knows exactly which devices are connected and how they work. Since 'FieldEcho' uses an OPC UA Client and thus ensures this standardized M2M communication, the machine operator can also access the machine remotely to see whether all devices are working as planned or whether re-parameterization or replacement is necessary.

The advantage of communication via OPC UA is that this technology provides Security by Design. The OPC server can be protected with certificates and passwords. This allows secure communication between 'FieldEcho' and a controller.  

You have already mentioned OPC UA – configure, monitor or modify it via a browser or HMI. which other protocols are supported by 'FieldEcho'? 

One of the central features of the tool is its protocol openness to standardized IT procedures for IO-Link data transmission. 'FieldEcho' communicates with a PLC alongside OPC UA via protocol standards such as TCP/ IP during read/write data access.

'FieldEcho' also allows for communication via a REST API to enable IO-Link data transmission in JSON format to ERP and MES systems. Data transfer to cloud-based services can be used in an Industry 4.0 environment to provide advanced data analysis, predictive machine maintenance or factory inventories, for example. 'FieldEcho' thus fulfills much more requirements than simply simplifying the integration of sensors and actuators from different device manufacturers.  

Drawing on the data collection in 'FieldEcho': What other features can users use to optimize processes? 

Another feature of the software is the 'FieldEcho Dashboard'. The dashboard automatically connects to 'FieldEcho' and generates automatic alerts in case of an anomaly of a connected device. The user does not need to make any configuration of his own since the Dashboard creates the user interface based on the data received from the IO-Link system via the REST API. An integrated database allows the dashboard to manage this pool of information.

The dashboard also includes the option to select and monitor individual process data and device parameters. This avoids the need for extensive programming. Users can also configure the dashboard to send individualized alarms or alerts when certain thresholds are reached or in case of a malfunction. Depending on the trigger, alarm messages can be sent to predefined, different employees via e-mail. The sources of error and causes are thus immediately and easily identified and appropriate measures can be taken.  

FieldEcho' has been in use for a year and a half. What further developments will there be?  

Feedback from 'FieldEcho' users drives further development. There are already numerous ideas such as recipe management. The integration of non-IO-Link devices is also on our agenda of possible extensions. The targeted openness of 'FieldEcho' not only towards all device manufacturers but also towards device types increases the demand to manage devices outside the IO Link world in the same way.  

Source: RFID & Wireless IoT Global, Special Edition Wireless IoT Technology 2020

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Oliver Huther
Oliver Huther
Business Development Manager RFID
Düsseldorf, Germany
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