Smart Factory – A New Era Based on Open Automation

Open Automation is an approach that makes digitalization easy to implement, with a freely expandable cloud platform for the factory. It integrates the open programming interfaces for Smart Manufacturing, allowing for easy embedding of third-party applications for production and weighing technology, such as checkweighing, controller functions or quality control.

The use of smart sensors, load cells and measuring amplifiers is key to implementing Open Automation. Inherently intelligent components are required, for example "open interfaces" or "edge computing”, to enable efficient and targeted data processing. This article discusses the requirements for such systems, with a focus on software integration.

Optimize processes, reduce costs and, thus, increase turnover

The advent of Industry 4.0, or the Industrial Internet of Things, has given rise to far-reaching new possibilities in production environments. Better process control increases the yield and quality of manufactured products. Detecting and resolving quality issues at an early stage avoids costly rejects. Potential quality improvements can also be identified more easily by more efficient production monitoring and, thus, product quality can be enhanced more quickly. In weighing and packaging applications, production times can be minimized while the legal requirements for accuracy can be monitored and documented at the same time.

Intelligent measuring chains deliver insights into the condition of individual machines and allow the prediction of pending, critical material wear. Necessary parts can be ordered at an early stage, short maintenance windows can be planned for work to be done, and extended machine downtimes can be avoided.

In today's production environments, PLC applications are increasingly being replaced by software or even cloud-based applications. Just as the Internet of Things is now being driven by platforms such as Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Instagram, LinkedIn, Spotify, Twitter or WhatsApp, the trend towards a platform has now also taken hold of the Industrial Internet of Things, the IIoT.

Voice control, integration with email programs, apps, and other examples of autonomous innovative solutions

This new openness results in innovative and user-friendly solutions such as voice and chat control or integration into email programs. With the open IIoT platform, voice and chat controllers such as Alexa or Cortana can provide information about the status of production machines on request. Windows providing information can also be integrated into Outlook and other email programs to display the status of production or directly access reports. Alarm notifications based on stored limit values or in the case of errors and downtimes can also be sent out. Similarly, it is possible to receive real-time push messages via the factory app about all important events such as defective parts or a machine standstill.

Use of intelligent hardware – Edge computing

A fundamental aspect of modern testing and measuring equipment and the Industry 4.0 Smart Factory is that the measuring components such as the sensor or measuring amplifier are inherently intelligent. These components can already pre-process the data.

Although the terms Industry 4.0 and IIoT are generally directly associated with cloud solutions, the hardware must not be neglected. Modern solutions focus on ease of use. For example, with modern devices, creating tasks no longer requires in-depth programming knowledge but can be implemented easily. This change is comparable to that of mobile phones – from the initially purely utilitarian object without any special functions that provided only limited usability to the versatile all-rounder that offers intuitive and easy operation. There also is another transformation underway, from task programming to mere parameterisation. An example of this is the internal calculation channels ("Edge Computing”) of the smart measuring amplifiers ClipX, DSE-HIE, PMX and WTX from HBK. They feature a wide range of pre-implemented functions, which merely need to be configured by the user. This reduces both the time required and the potential sources of error during implementation.

Data processing that matches the application

The basic principle is: Data should be processed where it makes the most sense. Historical data and data that only require long-term analysis of a system, which requires both storage and computing power, should be covered by a cloud solution.

However, despite all its benefits, the cloud is not the solution that fits all applications. Especially, time-critical data that relies on very low system latency should be processed locally to ensure a fast response, such as the initiation of a machine stop. Solutions of this kind are called "edge computing" and are in clear contrast to cloud computing.

Ensure interoperability through appropriate protocols

Using a suitable protocol is essential to creating efficient systems that are easy to expand in the future. Solutions from a manufacturer with a proprietary or non-widely used protocol may initially be cheaper but will not pay off in the long run. For this purpose, the OPC Foundation has developed the platform-independent standard for data exchange OPC UA (Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture), which ensures data exchange for industrial communication, independent of the manufacturer, programming language of the device, and operating system. This protocol also enables the exchange in machine-readable semantic form.

Working groups in the OPC Foundation also define special profiles for applications in the manufacturing and process industries. For example, a profile has been developed for weighing applications that reflects the special requirements and working methods as well as the legal specifications. Thus, the software acts like a modular system that can be optimally integrated into the overall application and saves an enormous amount of time.

User level-based layers and access authentication and encryption mechanisms provide a high level of security to protect the transmitted data. This protocol offers a TCP or HTTPS-based client-server model as well as a publisher-subscriber model for various application areas using UDP, AMQP or MQTT. Thus, manufacturers must only ensure the secure provision of the data delivered by the device.

Open interfaces allow for an overall solution – API and drivers

Another trend in IoT is set by the Open API initiative in the USA, which aims to promote the free exchange of data between applications of different manufacturers, using open user programming interfaces (API – Application Programming Interfaces).

Industrial measuring amplifiers from HBK offer an object directory implemented in the device. Based on a key or command list, all the objects of the device can be read or changed, for example, via a TCP/IP socket connection or fieldbus communication. This provides a solid basis for the parameterisation and full remote control of the device without using the integrated web server.

Device API for integration with C/C++ and C#

Based on the object directory—to enable integration into smaller or customer-specific software applications—an API in the form of a .dll file has been developed for the ClipX measuring amplifier to enable the amplifier to be easily integrated into new environments, such as C, C++ and C# applications, using a solid function framework. It is available free of charge from the HBK website for both Windows, in the form of a .dll file, and Linux, in a specially compiled version in the form of a .so file. Since the .dll/.so file was developed in the C++ programming language, integration into a C project requires the use of the C interface, which is also included. Thus, even in self-written programs, the devices can be accessed without any effort and controlled as required. All the device parameters can be read out or changed.

Application example: Load cells in web-based quality control

How can heterogeneous machinery be connected as easily as possible to new IIoT platforms? This is a crucial question for plant managers; therefore, platform suppliers must be able to offer simple solutions. For example, connecting pilot machines must not take longer than three days, including networking with the planning level (ERP) via an adapter. To subsequently convert big data from the machines into usable smart data in real time, high-performance data processing via edge or cloud computing is necessary. The aim is to create digital mirror images on all the computers needed in the shop floor to enable production managers and workers to virtually analyse and optimise the operating conditions.

HBK, too, is increasingly automating work steps in its in-house production. An example of the intelligent transformation of manual work can be found in quality control, where the correct temperature in special furnaces for ring-torsion load cells (RTN) needs to be ensured.

Before automation, the temperature curve was printed out using an analogue line recorder which then had to be adjusted to the target value by an employee using a template. To automate this step and, thus, also avoid human errors in the adjustment, the furnaces were equipped with five Pt100 temperature sensors, each connected to a ClipX. All the ClipX amplifiers are interconnected via the internal ClipX bus, which guarantees signal synchronicity.

For evaluation purposes, the data is sent to the Bosch Nexeed Production Performance Manager (PPM), using the REST protocol and is automatically compared with a target curve. In case of deviations exceeding a set delta, an alarm signal is triggered, and a potential error can be corrected instantly.

Conclusion – Generate added value from data


When used correctly, the IIoT helps companies make the most of their data. To achieve this, they need a networked infrastructure, efficient data management, and supporting cloud applications. The influence of software applications in the automation industry is increasing. Open Automation and open interfaces bring great freedom: On request, programmers can seamlessly integrate both existing IT systems and systems such as applications for tool data management, quality assurance, or predictive maintenance.

Companies with such integrated open interfaces (again) become independent builders of their very individual IT architecture. Entire components become obsolete due to software-based networking, control, analysis, and data processing. This requires comprehensive compatibility and interoperability of the hardware used with the software tools. These Industrial 4.0 implementations make production and calibration processes more secure and they can be networked via the intranet and the internet throughout factories and worldwide.

HBK offers a wide range of options for connecting their hardware to a variety of well-known software applications directly to DAQ-supported applications, as well as open interfaces for individual integration into a plethora of cloud applications. These are sensors, load cells and measurement electronics with open interfaces for individual integration into diverse cloud applications. HBK amplifiers are compatible with a multitude of protocols and are, therefore, easy to integrate into both existing networks and new applications and networks.

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