Factories of the Future — Industry 4.0 Summit — IO-Link, Rexroth, and more

What will the factory of the future look like? How will digital approaches like IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and 4IR (4th Industrial Revolution) affect how things are made? With a colleague from Conflux, I recently went to the Industry 4.0 Summit in Manchester to see the Factories of the Future expo. In summary, we can expect IIoT and 4IR to shape manufacturing in some positive ways:

  • IO-Link looks like a good standard for industrial digital sensing and control, with useful auto-configuration capabilities for new sensors.
  • Bosch Rexroth are taking an “as a Service” approach to Industry 4.0 by offering wrap-around services for sensors installation & maintenance, data collection, and decision-making.
  • There is an emerging focus on operator experience and human-robot collaboration, using human intelligence together with digital sensing, rather than a drive to replace humans with technology.

Assembly Conference: Makers + Manufacturers + Software — Leeds, UK — Tuesday 02 October 2018 — assemblyconf.com

IO-Link — an emerging standard for smart sensors and actuators

I spent 30 minutes or so at the IFM Electronic stand chatting to the team there about current and forthcoming digital sensors. For my final year BSc (university) course in 1999 I built an automated weather sensing station using Echelon LonWorks technology (digital, 8-bit, serial), so I was interested to see where industrial sensing is today. IFM has adopted the emerging IO-Link standard for digital comms from sensors, along with most of the major players in the industrial automation space, including Bosch Rexroth, Siemens, Texas Instruments, and over 170 other companies. IO-Link is the first technology for communicating with sensors and actuators to be adopted as an international standard (IEC 611331-9).

A key reason for adopting IO-Link for IFM was that the form factor of sensors and comms cabling can remain the same as with analog sensors; the difference is that instead of analog signals being transmitted, digital signalling is used, which allows a much richer set of data: instead of a single analog range, multiple digital values can be encoded and transmitted back to the IO-Link control devices. A nice feature of IO-Link is that calibration parameters can be pushed to a new sensor automatically based on its sensor type, avoiding lengthy provisioning delays and possible misconfiguration. Coming from recent experience in automated provisioning and configuration management for cloud-based software systems, I found the auto-configuration aspect of IO-Link very compelling.

Balluff was also showcasing its IO-Link sensors and actuators at the Factories of the Future expo:

The latest factory automation solutions from Omron also use IO-Link as the data and control interface to sensors. I liked Omron’s “harmonious” approach of using machines to complement human intelligence, not replace it.

Bosch Rexroth — Industry 4.0 as a Service

Rexroth (from Bosch Group) has a substantial presence at the Factories of the Future expo with their IIoT-enabled, hydraulic-jack driving simulator. Rexroth also had less whizzbang but more useful things on display too, including a demonstration of their IoT Gateway technology that acts as an intelligent bridge between machines and the Cloud (for analytics and control). I was lucky to be given a personal demonstration by Mike Lomax, Electrification Manager at Bosch Rexroth.


The Rexroth IoT Gateway approach is particularly suited to retro-fitting older machines with modern sensors. There are thousands of specialist manufacturing machines installed in sites around the world that have proven to work well and have high reliability and operability. Discarding these machines would be costly and of dubious value; instead, retro-fitting these older machines with sensors to track and then improve manufacturing performance makes a lot of sense for manufacturers.

The browser-based configuration of the Rexroth IoT Gateway feels like a big plus point for machine/plant operators, particularly as Rexroth have provided in-built connectors to multiple public cloud providers for storing and analysing the sensor data. A single view of all sensor devices and their data is provided by the Device Portal software.

It was not surprising to hear that Bosch Rexroth has adopted an “Industry 4.0 as a Service” approach to Industrial IoT. Manufacturers with a significant investment in tooling and machinery want a simple solution to digitisation without the hassle of building their own internal capability, at least not up-front.

Rexroth are providing a wrap-around service using their IoT Gateway (seen here in box with pink lights) combined with installation, data collection, analysis and alerting via cloud-connected software.

The differentiator here is the Rexroth “Industry 4.0 as a Service” model: instead of manufacturers having to learn how to wire up (literally or figuratively) all the different pieces, they can rely on the service from Rexroth. Clearly, this does not prevent the manufacturer from developing IIoT capabilities of their own later; instead, it’s a straightforward way to step up into a digitised space with minimal disruption. This has clear parallels in the cloud software space, where the best approach for many companies is to start with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings as they assess a new capability; over time, they may build out internal capability or simply continue with the as-a-Service solution.

A nice example of good response to the market was the Bosch Connected Industrial Sensors Solution (CISS), a robust sensor for detection of acceleration, vibration, and atmospheric conditions. Originally developed for shipping and transportation, CISS is now being used by machine manufacturers that want to track the environmental condition of their machines around the world in order to detect out-of-range conditions. It turns out that many companies are happy to spend thousands of dollars on a complex machine only to leave it outside in the rain or direct sunlight!

The CISS devices have a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and sensors for temperature, humidity, light, pressure, and noise. Data recording is continuous for up to 2 years, and the data can be read off the device with Bluetooth. This kind of technology represents an early form of SPIME tracking, as defined by visionary Bruce Sterling in his 2005 book Shaping Things — it’s exciting to see this being made real in 2018.

I have spent the last few years focusing on the interaction of technology and teams in a business/cloud software context, so I found the Active Cockpit product from Bosch Rexroth immediately compelling. The idea is that the large smart-screen device enables teams on the factory floor to coordinate and collaborate around a single physical device. It’s kind of “Kanban on steroids”!


My thanks go to Mike Lomax of Bosch Rexroth and Paul Stansfield of IFM Electronic for in-depth demonstrations.

At Conflux, we help organisations in manufacturing, e-commerce, and online services to adopt and expand good software practices like Continuous Delivery and operability, alongside improvements in team design and technology strategy. We offer consultancy and training in the UK and EU — find out more: confluxdigital.net