Safe control technology for smart factories

By automating,
integrating, and networking processes, implementing Industry 4.0 opens up a
whole new level of flexibility and transparency in production. Industrial
safety technology plays a key role in this as it allows humans and machines to
interact with each other in smart factories without any accidents. Migration
capability, simple project planning and configuration, openness to intelligent
safety concepts, and the ability to adapt to the future are all requirements
for safety solutions when it comes to Industry 4.0 – features that are fully
applicable to SICK’s range of safe Flexi Soft control solutions.

modular Flexi Soft is simply ideal for use in smart factories for a number of
reasons, meaning that in the future it will be fundamentally suited to
providing seamless solutions from sensors or switches in the field to the data
world of the cloud and the applications located there. Various gateways open up
numerous possibilities for integration into every common fieldbus environment.
Its functionalities and their flexible configuration options are complemented
by intelligent safety concepts: Flexi Line for networking individual machines
and plant modules with safety technology; Flexi Loop for cost-effectively
cascading dual-channel safety switches and sensors; and Motion Control for
safety-related drive monitoring. In this way, and completely in keeping with
the meaning of Industry 4.0, both the safety controller and the safety concepts
guarantee maximum plant availability and safety; for example, by means of
predictive maintenance.

Flexi Soft: A modular solution that supports migration and adds value

The SICK Flexi Soft – one of the
best-selling safety controllers on the industrial safety technology market –
boasts supreme flexibility and user-friendliness. Users can combine various I/O
and relay modules, as well as fieldbus gateways, with one another to suit the
application, creating a custom, compact, and cost-effective solution no matter
which of the many different forms the end configuration takes. Every Flexi Soft
configuration can also be scaled at a later stage, meaning that you can add
additional functionalities such as a Flexi Soft Drive Monitor for reliably monitoring

Another of Flexi Soft’s special
features is the EFI (enhanced function interface) which the safety controller
can use to read out sensor data, receive warning messages, or switch safety
laser scanner protective fields, for example. Flexi Soft is also ideally suited
to controlling and monitoring a whole range of contact-based and non-contact
safety sensors and actuators, safety door switches, emergency switching-off
devices, two-hand control systems, testable photoelectric sensors, safety light
curtains, and safety laser scanners. The formula is “1+1=3”; as a complete supplier of safety solutions,
SICK is able to supply components designed to function together as seamlessly
integrated safety solutions that offer greater added value than the sum of the
individual modules.

Connectivity up to the secure data room of the future

Thanks to this seamless
structure, the Flexi Soft safety controller allows you to use sensor, status,
and process data from sensors and safety concepts in higher automation levels
for diagnostics purposes in the context of Industry 4.0. Furthermore, thanks to
a multitude of industry-standard fieldbus gateways, you already have the basic
option of also providing and using this information in the cloud for targeted
remote maintenance operations or setting up predictive maintenance concepts,
for example.

However, using this option in
the future will require clarification of the ownership and usage rights of the
data in terms of both technology and the law. This is why SICK has been a
committed founding member of the Industrial Data Space e.V. since the
beginning. The success of Industry 4.0 will depend on clear, reliably regulated
ownership rights, and companies will only provide data for Industry 4.0 if they
are able to place their absolute trust in the data room security. Safety
technology will especially benefit from such data rooms because its seamless
solutions from the field to the cloud can only offer safety if the security of
the data is also guaranteed.

Planning complex projects without a hitch

It does not matter when such
data rooms will actually become a reality because the Flexi Soft Designer
project planning software from SICK is already available to download for free
at This
software ensures that even complex tasks can be completed quickly and
successfully. Configuration at the click of a mouse and drag-and-drop wiring
allow project developers to intuitively create elaborate and comprehensive
safety applications in a matter of minutes. After clicking through the logic
editor, the next step is to set up and test the programming and functionalities
of the safety application quickly and integrate them into the automation
environment. The Flexi Soft Designer provides support for this too. The
simulation mode makes it possible to perform initial configuration testing and
diagnostics right at the designer’s desk. Not only that, but the Flexi Soft
Designer automatically generates a wiring diagram, which effectively supports
and simplifies commissioning, as well as a multilingual report for creating the
machine documentation.

Flexi Line: Networked safety for flexibility and productivity

SICK is developing the Flexi
Soft platform further with a range of intelligent safety concepts, acting on
two pioneering trends in the market for industrial safety technology.

For instance, the Flexi Line
interface of the Flexi Soft safety controller provides a simple yet efficient
method of connecting modular machine elements – even if they come from
different manufacturers. The interface allows you to connect up to 32 Flexi
Soft stations safely (“safe in line”) and link safety functions using multiple
machines. With regard to smart factories, Flexi Line supports flexible and modular
machine concepts for custom production processes and individual customer
requirements. Depending on how the production or commissioning process needs to
proceed, it is possible to replace individual machine modules, integrate new
modules into the overall plant, or combine modules in new ways. Additionally,
individual plant components can be disconnected from the safety and control
elements of the machine network for maintenance purposes if necessary – an
inexpensive and efficient way of maintaining modules within linked systems.

Flexi Loop: Cost-effectively integrating safety switches using cascading

Cascaded safety switches and
sensors “in one line” and with a safe switching input – that is the idea behind
the remote Flexi Loop safety concept. As part of a safety-related control
solution from SICK, this concept makes it possible to connect up to eight
sensor cascades each with up to 32 dual-channel safety switches and safety
sensors directly to various safety controller extension modules without excessive
or unnecessary costs. What’s more, the diagnostics information from the sensors
can, in principle, also be made usable in the cloud via gateways. The
integration possibilities are incredibly versatile: It is possible to use
electro-mechanical and magnetic safety switches, safety sensors with monitored
semiconductor outputs, as well as pushbuttons, lamps, and guard controls; safe
sensors and standard sensors can be evaluated on the input side, and standard
actuators can be evaluated on the output side – even safety-related switches
and sensors from different manufacturers can be integrated. But the feature
that makes the system really easy to use is the plug & play capability of
the SICK switches and sensors, which come ready-prepared with M12 male connectors
and appropriate pin assignments for Flexi Loop.

From a technical and economic
standpoint, sensor cascading with Flexi Loop is particularly useful for
machines with a high number of safety sensors for monitoring doors, protective
flaps, covers, and emergency stop pushbuttons. The supply and communication
paths between the individual nodes can be as long as 100 m. Unlike
conventional series connection, Flexi Loop also has the considerable advantage
that consequential errors in the sensor line can be clearly identified and
located in the loop rather than being “masked”. As a result, switch and sensor
cascading with Flexi Loop never fails to meet the requirements set for
performance level PL e as defined in DIN EN ISO 13849-1 when used with
compatible devices. Furthermore, this allows maintenance and repair work to be
performed quickly at targeted locations – keeping the duration and, therefore,
cost of machine downtimes to a minimum and optimising availability.

Safe Motion Control: Intelligent solutions for safe drive and motion

Intelligent machine drive
monitoring is particularly important during set-up, maintenance, and repair
operations in smart factories. The Safe Motion Control product portfolio from
SICK offers safe yet economical solutions for this – including a speed monitor,
a standstill monitor, as well as a drive monitor with a multitude of
standard-compliant functions for safe drive monitoring even in multi-axis
applications. By safely monitoring the machine parameters of speed, travel, and
acceleration, it is possible to draw an exact distinction between the machine
movements which are dangerous and those that are safe. Safe Motion Control
detects whether machine operators are actually in danger when they enter or
create an interruption in a hazardous area. If this is not the case – for
example, when set-up or maintenance operations are monitored reliably – the
processes are not interrupted.

SICK’s user-friendly Flexi Soft
Designer software and its numerous motion modules make designing and
configuring even safe drive solutions a breeze. Safe Motion Control from SICK
opens up a multitude of possibilities for integrated and economic drive and
motion monitoring solutions with state-of-the-art safety technology: The Flexi
Soft safety controller extension modules meet safety levels PL e as per EN ISO
13849, SIL3 as per IEC 61508, and SIL3CL as per EN 62061. What’s more, as SICK
also has sensors that are not safety-oriented (encoders or motor feedback
systems, for example), a complete safety application including drive monitoring
can be provided from a single source.

Constantly further developing the Flexi Soft platform

When it comes to the
implementation of safety-related strategies and concepts for smart factories, a
secure data room is synonymous with the ability to adapt to the future. It is
equally important to be able to anticipate and implement future product and
system requirements. As a result of this, Flexi Soft will be sporting major
further developments in the foreseeable future, including an analog module for
the integration of distance, pressure, and temperature sensors, a new concept
for safely networking controls and sensors, as well as additional motion
control functionalities. Flexi Soft will continue to be a pioneer on the path
to Industry 4.0.

Written by Frank Triem, Product Manager for Industrial Safety Systems,
SICK AG, Waldkirch

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