The Future of IO-Link

In 1896, most Americans lived on farms and made their own clothes–and even their own furniture. But a small retailer, Sears Roebuck & Co., changed all that with a simple mail order catalog, which introduced Americans to the convenience of mass-produced items that would not only change their lives but the way they shopped, as well.

By the 1920’s, Sears began opening retail stores across the country and quickly became the nation’s largest employer. But by the end of the 20th century, the retail landscape was changing due to competition from other big-box retailers like Walmart and a brand new phenomenon called internet shopping. Sears, however, was slow to move online and, ultimately, that led to the slow, painful death of the brand.

Sears ultimate failure can be attributed to thousands of small mistakes, but chief among them was a failure to do one thing: innovate. Today, as we find ourselves in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0), innovation is more important than ever.

What can we expect from Industry 4.0?

In a word: change–and lots of it. We’ll continue to see a shift to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal. But the real momentum will be coming from the acceleration of digital technology as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud technology, and artificial intelligence keep expanding. At this point, many of us don’t even question the longevity of things like artificial intelligence, 5G, energy storage, and renewables. But what about the lesser known IO-Link?

What in the world is IO-Link?

IO-Link is the first world-wide standardized IO point-to-point communication protocol (IEC 61131-9) for the communication with sensors, actuators, and control technology. IO-Link allows the sensor to send data to a computer for live monitoring and trending. And IO-Link is bi-directional, which gives the user the ability to make remote configuration changes via a 3-wire connection. Even better? IO-Link technology is compatible with existing I/O standards, which makes it easy to integrate into existing systems with varying protocols like DNP3, Modbus, and Ethernet. IO-Link is also easy to configure due to the IODD of the device.

What is getting in the way of IO-Link adoption?

The biggest challenge to IO-Link adoption is overcoming the divide between Operations Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) within organizations. Arguably, the relationship between the two teams can be a tense one, and perhaps the most tension exists between the old guard and the up-and-coming players. Typically it’s the most tenured experts who wield the greatest influence over the economic buyers of most fortune 500 companies and, largely, that is what is preventing IO-Link from getting real traction.

Is it too soon to expect widespread endorsement of IO-Link?

The question of timing is an important one. In fact, we’ve all witnessed the ramifications of market pushback when a new technology emerges before the necessary infrastructure is ready.

Consider the electric vehicle push in the early 1990’s. The vehicles were largely geared to the retail consumer, but the standards were not there, the price points were too high, and the drive range was less than ideal. As a result, growth has been slow and modest (currently electric vehicles hold only 2.8% of global market share), but that’s not to say the technology isn’t worthy of investment. With plans to introduce 450 additional electric vehicle models by 2022, automakers obviously agree.

Bottom line, IIoT has been in motion for a few decades now and has helped pave the way for IO-Link. Fortunately, IO-Link has received a groundswell of support from marquee companies, and those companies are well positioned to offer great value in the automation marketplace. They have found that IO-Link makes IIoT deployment cost-effective, advantageous, and easy, which helps make a compelling argument to take a chance on replacing technology that has served well for decades.

What are some possible applications for IO-Link?

Manufacturers are putting a lot of effort into creating an electric vehicle charging network as wide and convenient as possible. To be successful, however, every single charger in that network must be operational at all times.

That’s where I-O Link technology comes in. IO-Link can provide a real time monitoring of every charging station network-wide and even perform thermal management of those chargers, which is especially helpful during heavy loads or extreme weather. The end result is reliable, uninterrupted service, which naturally leads a growing number of loyal customers.

IO-Link is also a powerful enabler to move away from Time-based-maintenance (TBM) to a more efficient and cost-effective mode of condition-based-maintenance (CBM). For example, in a power grid, an oil cooled transformer is key to keeping the entire grid up and running. Not to mention, it is a very expensive piece of equipment and must be carefully maintained to ensure performance. Instead of waiting for a crew to physically collect an oil sample and take it to a lab for testing, IO-Link-enabled CBM collects live data in real time. That information allows you to identify trends and detect underlying issues in advance, which saves time and, more importantly, avoids a costly failure.

Is IO-Link geared for commercial and industrial customers only?

No. The standards, price and technology are ready for mass adoption and the potential for return on investment is solid. If Sears taught us anything, only the fittest will survive and, for the foreseeable future, embracing new and emerging technologies will be the key.