Laying the foundations of Industry 4.0 with IO-Link materials handling solution

Point-to-point communication along the length of a conveyor system is no longer a technology of the future. Ifm Efector’s product manager Freddie Coertze tells Safe to Work what was once imagined is now brought to tangible reality.

All mining companies will agree on one major problem: the breakdown of a conveying system.

German sensor specialist Ifm Efector has completed extensive market research in the mining sector, and particularly in partnership with some mining companies in Western Australia.

According to product manager of industrial communications Freddie Coertze, a lot of these large companies have a similar need when it comes to their assets, especially conveyor belts.

When a conveyor breaks down, a lot of implications may appear in the form of unplanned downtime and a loss of valuable production.

Additionally, repair jobs need to be done in as little time as possible to minimise the cost of missed opportunities.

But depending on the cause of its failure, a conveyor’s breakdown not only hurts a company’s productivity – it may also harm its workers, depending on the cause of failure.

“We first identified this problem. And rather than selling a product, we thought it was best to sell a solution,” Coertze tells Safe to Work.

In addressing the lack of control faced by many companies in managing conveyor breakdown, Ifm gives operators the ability to identify problem ahead of time. After all, “being able to predict your maintenance over the life of the conveyor will be better than running to a failure.”

The company’s IO-Link module is a small unit with enough power to gather data in respect to any movement, instrument or safety switches on a conveyor system with the use of sensors. This gives mining companies the power to instantly identify the point of failure in a conveyor.

“We mainly want to gather data from the conveyor. And IO-Link is the one that connects to all the different sensors and devices attached to a conveyor system and unlocks their data before loading it to the server or Cloud,” Coertze says.

“So we can take the data out, and that data is really available. That’s why we see this device as being really great in that environment.”

The IO-link module is installed close to the instruments.


The data is also updated every 2.3 milliseconds to the network, providing real-time feedback to operators.

Based on the information gathered, operators can locate the source of the error and have it fixed more quickly, as opposed to having a repairer check every single device that may have tripped in the conveying system.

Users also apply this data to identify a conveyor’s health condition, which enables mining operators to predict when maintenance is next required for the system.

The IO-Link module, combined with a small vibration sensor on all critical moving assets, also collects vibration data – this will be sent to a remote location where operators will identify an issue upon detecting increased vibration levels.

The practicality of the IO-Link module doesn’t stop there. “Our little field module – if we can call it that – can be stuck on the conveyor, connected on to your network and you’ll get everything you need from it,” Coertze says.

“It’s a plug and play solution – really straightforward.”

The unit provides point-to-point connections to mining operations without complex installation.

Operators can stick as many as 10 modules down the length of a conveyor system and collect all the information, thanks to the module’s rugged quality and adaptability to harsh outdoor environments.

“If you look at Ifm’s history, you can see that we’re also strong in the food industry – from your breweries to your dairies. Because of that we have the capacity to manufacture sensors and devices that can handle really harsh environments including chemical washdowns, high temperatures and temperature fluctuations,” Coertze says.

“With our expertise in that arena, we can design this block-like module for use in a harsh environment such as mining.”

This is the winning characteristic of Ifm’s IO-Link module. Though there are more than 240 manufacturers of IO-Link, not all of them have an IP-rated block that can be put out in the field.

“You normally have to put the module in a cabinet to protect it from extreme temperatures. Not ours,” Coertze says.

“When a safety rope switch is pulled and your conveyor is in a safe state, we can indicate which one is tripped.”

This article also appears in the Apr-Jun 2019 edition of Safe to Work.

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