Smaller, faster, more versatile – what will become of the sensor? The future of sensor technology is occupying the automation industry. While discussions around hardware and software, safety sensor technology and artificial intelligence are increasing, the requirements and expectations for plants, machines and their sensors are also rising. A decisive key trend here is digitalization. For Balluff, it is the next level of industrial automation. This also applies to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which combines classic operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT). Intelligent sensors that collect data, evaluate it and generate useful information from it make this possible. “The rapidly increasing availability of data makes decisions easier,” says Dr. Ingo Kleinschroth, head of product development at Balluff, “We not only analyze data retrospectively, but also use it predictively.” The result? “More facts instead of intuition.”
Component and solution provider
Whether it be intelligent sensors with the IO-Link communication standard, the multifunctional Balluff condition monitoring sensor for smart condition monitoring, or RFID and network modules for improved communication between the field level and IT: Balluff’s portfolio of smart devices is growing steadily along with the diversity of technology. However, digitalization not only influences the product range of an automation specialist like Balluff, but also the self-image of the entire group. “We see ourselves as a component and solution provider, and both aspects have their importance,” says Kleinschroth. “Based on customer requirements, we offer a solution topology that extends from components to evaluation in IT systems – from data source to data analytics.” He explains that what is most important is the ease of scalability and the extensibility of solutions while maintaining IT security requirements and comprehensive understanding of end-to-end processes. “With a view to digitalization, these are the decisive success factors.”
And the customer? According to Kleinschroth, their expectations are also being changed by increasing digitalization. “Compared to the past, digital customer management is starting much earlier – in other words, as early as the consulting and conception phase. The entire digital customer journey is getting longer.” He explains, for example, that the digital twin – a virtual image of the component enhanced with metadata – is increasingly already being used for simulative integration into customer systems. Other examples of change include digital handling and service processes, remote support for analysis and maintenance, and the expansion of sensor functionality via software updates: “What our customers need is measurable added value in their production environment that can be implemented with little effort,” says Kleinschroth. “This can only succeed if we offer them 360-degree digitization and IIoT solutions that are as tailored as they are smart.”
Acceptance of innovation
In addition to data quality, openness and agility are also becoming increasingly important in the context of digitalization. Hubertus Breier, head of technology at Balluff, is also aware of this: “We see further development as an opportunity and are therefore also adapting our thinking and processes within the company.” However, it is not only the development and innovation department that is facing the challenge here. “At Balluff, we live an integrated innovation process. This means: All colleagues can actively participate in our internal incubation programs across the individual departments and through the individual phases,” explains Breier.
The declared goal is to get employees excited about innovations, to motivate them, and thus to drive forward the digital transformation in the group. “Customers need transparency, which is why we attach great importance to involving them in our incubation programs at a very early stage, for example with functional prototypes or software solutions.” Breier is convinced: Acting in a future-oriented manner also means making decisions based on only 70 percent of the information: “In the idea phase, speed is more important than perfection – this also applies to industrial automation and thus to the future of sensor technology.”