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Case study – ifm electronic

Shop Floor Integration for sensor manufacturers

Automation instead of over-maintenance

By: Claudia Ballhause, IT journalist for Wordfinder

Digitalisation has led to an optimisation of processes in production companies. Nevertheless, there are areas whera a lot still has to be recorded manually. This includes, for example, the maintenance of machines, which is often carried out at intervals recommended by the manufacturer. A sensor manufacturer from the Ruhr area now relies on condition-based maintenance via Shop Floor Integration for the production of one the most important components, which is based on real data and records the individual wear tools. Automation prevents over-maintenance and premature tool replacement, saving costs and extending machine running times.

ifm electronic GmbH, headquartered in Essen, Germany, develops and produces highly specialised sensors for industry at locations in Germany, the USA, Singapore, Poland, Romania and India. 7,300 employees work for the company worldwide, which supplies customers from the packaging, automotive and food industries as well as machine tool manufacturers. IO-Link sensors are becoming increasingly important, especially due to the progressive introduction of Industry 4.0, as they promise an increase in efficiency and cost savings due to their simple commissioning and the resulting transparency about machine data.

ifm produces IO-Link sensors at its plant on Lake Constance. The sensors are characterised by the fact that they can not only measure but also aggregate and forward information. Therefore they can be used in many ways in production plants. The most important element of the intelligent sensors is a circuit board that enables communication capability. The circuit board is manufactured using Surface Mounted Devices (SMD) assembly machines from FUJI. Regular maintenance of the placement heads guarantees consistently high quality.

Condition-based maintenance instead of maintenance recommendations from the machine manufacturer

Until now, the maintenance recommendations of the machine manufacturer were always followed in the factory. Over time, however, it became apparent that the maximum output (pick number per placement head) was not being utilised this way, and that unnecessarily high costs and high maintenance efforts were being incurred. “For this reason, we switched to condition-based maintenance and servicing, but had to realise that the net effect was very small because the performance limit of the placement heads could only be determined by laborious and regular checking of the counter reading on the machine," says Stefan Gessler, head of the maintenance department at ifm. To avoid the manual entry of data into the ERP system, which involves a lot of personnel effort and is also prone to errors, the change to an automated solution was to take place.

The solution for vertical digitalisation from the Siegen-based software manufacturer GIB mbH was finally chosen as the partner for the implementation of the Shop Floor Integration (SFI). A sensor system in the machine measures the lifting and lowering speed of the respective pick-and-place head and automatically forwards the data to the ERP-system. When the maximum pick number is reached, a maintenance order is automatically created and  the spare parts reservation is triggered. “For us, the big advantage of SFI was that we could use existing hardware and software. We did not have to install additional sensors, make changes in the middleware or adapt the ERP system. Normal customising functions ensure the connection from the shop floor to the business process level,” explains Matthias Marx, IIoT consultant at GIB.

Retrieve information in real-time and trigger alerts

SFI is a software solution that takes sensor data from the middleware and forwards the information to the corresponding areas in the ERP system. There, the information is stored for later evaluation and serves as the basis for recommendations for action. This includes, for example, alerts for automatic purchase requisitions. For the production of the printed circuit boards, this means that each placement head is recorded in the SAP system by barcode. This means that the exact pick number of each head can be called up in real-time. Depending on the individual degree of wear, the ERP system automatically suggests replacing the placement heads, which the maintenance engineer can then carry out immediately. In this way, ifm avoids over-maintenance and premature replacement of components, which otherwise cause unnecessary costs and consumption of resources. “For us, maintenance and servicing have become more plannable. We have been able to minimise downtimes and set-up times while at the same time ensuring high-quality production,” Stefan Gessler sums up. “At the same time, with the resource savings we have achieved, we are taking another step towards green production by operating more sustainably."

SFI has led to numerous improvements and more efficient machine utilisation. Instead of manually entering the counter reading for picks made into SAP once a week, the movements of the placement head are automatically recorded and transmitted twice a day. Thanks to tracking, the production managers also know exactly which tool is in use. A particularly positive aspect of the production processes: the entire implementation, inclusing process analysis and traning, took only two weeks. The production downtime itself was minimal. Moreover, the solution is not cost-intensive, so the investment paid for itself withing six months.


Companies often assume that large investments are necessary to implement automation and digitalisation systems for Industry 4.0. However, even small solutions in sub-areas can have a major impact without affecting ongoing operations in the long term. The implementation of SFI at ifm shows that a significant optimisation of workflows can be achieved with comparatively little effort. An additional advantage of partial solutions like this is that the training effort for employees is extremely low and the solution is widely accepted.

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