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What Makes Fibre Optics the Backbone of Industry 4.0?

Perhaps you‘re thinking about upgrading your factory so that it maintains competitiveness in an Industry 4.0 world. As you consider how to go about making those improvements, you’ll undoubtedly encounter content about fibre optics. Here are some of the crucial ways that they make the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) work.

Fibre Optics Enable Speedy, Reliable Transmissions

Machine connectivity is one of the hallmarks of an Industry 4.0 factory. Pieces of equipment may sync with one another and communicate to get jobs done faster. Additionally, manufacturers want up-to-date information about assembly-line output and whether any machines show unusual symptoms that could indicate an impending failure.

Installing fibre-optic cables assists with both the movement of data and the volume of information a manufacturing plant can collect. Several years ago, transmission speeds topped out at about 100 gigabits per second. However, they’re now even higher thanks to ongoing progress in fibre-optic technology.

In December 2020, researchers recorded a transmission speed of 1 petabit per second, a world-record achievement. They measured it using a multimode fibre-optic cable, and the outcome was reportedly more than two-and-a-half times faster than the top speeds available up to that point.

Fibre-optic cables will also become foundational for the manufacturing facilities that use the 5G network. They’ll be instrumental in transporting signals to and from 5G base stations.

Raf Meersman, CEO of consulting firm Comsof, advocates for bringing fibre inside the buildings where people use 5G. Within his research, he clarified, “Between 65% and 96% of fibre costs for 5G [backhaul] can be eliminated by rolling out an optimized and future-proof converged fibre network.”

Fibre Optics Help With Temperature-Sensitive Industry 4.0 Applications

One of the main goals in a smart factory is to get real-time information about processes, items, and machinery. Manufacturers receive those details with help from fibre optics. Manufacturers have numerous options when determining how to measure temperature. However, choosing the most appropriate one requires knowing the limitations of each possibility.

For example, infrared cameras and temperature transmitters are popular choices. However, they can only measure the warmth or coolness of the immediate surroundings. When the aim is to measure the temperature over a larger area, fibre optics can help, specifically through an option called distributed temperature sensing (DTS). In this approach, the temperature gets measured over the length of a fibre-optic cable.

How Does Distributed Temperature Sensing Work?

A laser pulse sent down an optical fibre propagates down it and gets scattered by fibreglass molecules in the process. As that happens, the scattered light pulse produces stokes signals, which have longer wavelengths, and anti-stokes signals, characterized by shorter wavelengths. The two signals’ intensity ratio is a proportional measurement of the temperature at the point where the laser scattering occurs.

There’s also another temperature-measuring method associated with this option. There’s a part of the scattered light called the backscatter that gets guided back towards the laser pulse source. Recording how long it takes for the backscatter to reach that point is another way to determine temperature.

Some of the potential applications of DTS in a manufacturing plant include monitoring the temperatures of furnace walls and power cables. Choosing DTS for power cable monitoring is both a preventive measure against fire and a way to improve cables’ efficiency. More specifically, if manufacturers choose real-time thermal rating (RTTR) technology for monitoring cable temperature, they use DTS to measure the associated surface temperature.

Fibre Optics Enhance Industrial Robot Sensitivity

Many Industry 4.0 factories include industrial robots. However, there’s a growing trend of investing in machines that can work around people instead of staying confined behind safety cages. A market analysis estimated that these collaborative robots would account for 30% of total robotics sales by 2027.

Collaborative robots typically help people with repetitive tasks, saving them from strain and giving them more time to complete more rewarding duties. Regardless of whether robots work directly with people, there’s an ongoing push to make them increasingly advanced. Fibre optics plays a role in spurring that progress.

Cornell University researchers made a stretchable “skin” for robots that incorporates a fibre-optic sensor that detects pressure, strain, and bending. The team anticipates that their innovation could give soft robots tactile sensation awareness, similar to what mammals have. Incorporating the sensor into a robotic hand, for example, could let the machine detect and correct when a delicate item begins to slip from its grasp.

Earlier work completed by Cornell researchers in 2017 indicated that a bot could safely grip a tomato and determine its ripeness before doing so. That’s because the fibre-optic sensors pick up on and respond to external stimuli. You can easily imagine the applications of this technology to any Industry 4.0 process that requires adequate responsiveness when a robot handles fragile goods.

Robots Improve Fibre-Optic Access

The connection between fibre optics and Industry 4.0 comes full circle if you consider applications where robots assist with fibre-optic rollouts. In such cases, a robot may receive commands and communications via fibre-optic cables while it simultaneously helps expand a fibre-optic network or assist a company that specializes in the sector.

In one example, Facebook deployed a robot to install fibre optics on medium-voltage aerial power lines. That was part of its effort to increase internet access with high-capacity networks.

Another instance involved Verizon Wireless installing 5G technology at a Corning fibre-optic manufacturing plant in Hickory, NC. That effort meant Corning could use a wide assortment of high-tech offerings to improve its output.

Autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) were among them, as well as connected cameras for inventory inspection and augmented reality (AR) applications to assist employees. With 5G now in the factory, Corning representatives have more possibilities open to them for taking production to the next level, whether with robots or other technologies.

Fibre Optics Are Essential for Industry 4.0 Success

These examples show why fibre optics technology is crucial for helping company leaders achieve their Industry 4.0 goals. Most people never notice fibre optics unless they participated in the installation process. However, they’ll undoubtedly appreciate all the things this type of infrastructure helps happen.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over three years experience writing articles for the tech and industrial sectors. Subscribe to the Revolutionized newsletter for more content from Emily at
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