autosen io-key: An in-depth review of the all-in-one IIoT enabler
The autosen io-key had its premiere at the Hannover Messe 2019 and quickly became widely known in the press. As of today, the solution has been on the market for a year and has been praised as the all-in-one three steps enabler for industrial cloud applications. Does this sound too good to be true? Well, let's find out in this story.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for remote monitoring solutions. autosen’s ready-to-use io-key solution was designed for that, which led to a boost in their gateway and sensor sales. In this story, I am going to take an in-depth look at the autosen io-key ecosystem. I would like to start with a brief look at the Company, then identify all their partners and distribution channels, look into different use cases, examine the gateway device, discuss the benefits and limitations, and close up with a summary.
autosen gmbh | A brief company overview
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many offline businesses had to stay closed for months, which once more underlined the immense role of e-commerce nowadays. Many companies have started to realize that they have to catch up with digitalization: list their goods, apps, and data sets online on marketplaces, which I have discussed in my previous story: Industrial IoT Application Store: The next big thing?
autosen gmbh was founded in Essen, Germany by Gerd Marhofer as a joint venture with ifm electronic in 2011. Their idea was simple, why not create an online business for automation technology with low prices? The idea came at the time when consumer e-commerce was starting to boom with shops as eBay, Amazon, and Zalando.
autosen gmbh belongs to the ifm stiftung & co. kg (2019), with an ownership interest of 71,18%. The estimated number of employees is 17, as of November 2020. The autosen online shop lists over 200 articles in the categories: Position Sensors, Process Sensors, io-key & IO-Link, Motion Control, Connection Technology, and Mounting Accessories.
In 2019, autosen gmbh entered the world of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) by introducing the io-key, a plug & play solution for monitoring and analysis of sensor data. The product has its own landing page at io-key.com and is also represented on the autosen website.
Partner network and distribution channels
autosen partnered with multiple vendors in order to make io-key happen. They did not have the hardware, firmware, cloud, or web application engineers at their disposal to built io-key on their own. They had to take a different approach and collaborate with four partners to bring the product to life. Additionally, there are two integration and distribution partners on board. This cooperation shows how complementary advantages of every single company create a win-win result for all participants:
Cloud Application | Software AG: The autosen.cloud is based on the Cumulocity cloud technology provided by Software AG. Cumulocity IoT is an IoT platform which connects things, monitors, and responds to IoT data in real time. Software AG has provided a brand-labeled and adapted version of their IoT platform for io-key.
Device Hardware/Firmware | Round Solutions GmbH & Co. KG: The Company builds wireless gateway hardware and implements the firmware for IoT devices. Round Solutions builds the gateway and implements the firmware of the io-key.
Connectivity/Wireless Transmission | 1NCE GmbH: The Company is a Tier-1 IoT Carrier specialized in IoT connectivity for low bandwidth applications. 1NCE provides the SIM cards with NB-IoT/2G for the io-key device.
System Integrator | codestryke GmbH: The Company is a system integrator for machine builders and operators in the Industrial IoT. Codestryke helps customers when they have custom requirements based on their data.
Systems Integrator | IMB Beratung für Industrieautomation GmbH: The Company extends the io-key ecosystem with the Benchmark Cockpit MIM.365 to improve equipment effectiveness (OEE) with condition monitoring and predictive analytics.
Remote monitoring use cases
The io-key is useful in a wide range of applications. Due to its wireless connectivity, the device can be installed in remote places with low bandwidth requirements which is a big advantage. The following exemplary list describes use cases for the io-key, in order to give you an impression of how wide the range of its possible applications may be:
Level measurement | Monitor container fill levels, optimize routes to reduce fuel consumption, improve the total efficiency of waste collection and recycling. Monitor feed silos, tanks for printing ink or concrete additives to know the perfect refill time for uninterrupted product supply and improved service quality.
Machine monitoring | Retrofit legacy equipment or remote machines to monitor production counters or other parameters like water or moisture in hydraulic and lubrication systems. Predict the future load of machines, improve their capacity utilization for better order and production planning. Prevent a significant system damage from undesired parameters, optimize maintenance intervals, save costs.
Smart tracking | Monitor vehicle or heavy equipment locations or telematics to track and trace your assets. Limit inefficiencies, protect your assets, improve compliance, and ROI.
Smart metering | Monitor energy consumption (water, gas, electricity) in indoor or outdoor environments to identify problems, anomalies or energy theft. Improve forecasting and streamline power-consumption.
Weather station | Monitor surface and air temperature or humidity to raise productivity, reduce consumption of inputs and improve product management.
As you can see, autosen’s io-key fits a wide range of use cases. Nevertheless, the device is limited by two IO-Link ports and has pitfalls to consider for industrial scenarios. I am going to discuss both the benefits and limitations of the product further in this story.
Gateway device and cloud solution
The io-key device is built into an IP65 robust plastic housing with flexible mounting possibilities, which use M5 screws or zip ties. The antenna is on the inside, there is also a built-in SIM card (eSIM). The wireless communication uses NB-IoT (800- & 900-MHz), and 2G (2G-Quadband GSM, 900/1800 MHz) as a fallback if NB-IoT is not available, making the device operable in Europe without any issues. The device has to be connected to a power supply (24V, M12) and can connect up to 2 IO-Link devices with IO-Link standard 1.0 and 1.1 via M12. The device status can be read from four status LED indicators: power supply, wireless connectivity, IO-Port 1, IO-Port 2.
In order to make a thorough review, I ordered the following test kit for 567,66 € (Fig.1; VAT included):
1x IO001 (autosen io-key Wireless IoT Gateway), 249,00 €
1x AN003 (Plug-in power supply 24V), 16,53 €
2x AA201 (Connection cable 2m PUR M12/M12), 22,84 €
1x AT001 (Temperature sensor), 86,75 €
1x AL003 (Laser distance sensor), 114,24 €
Furthermore, I had the choice between four transmission intervals: 1x / day (XS, 5,00€/month). 1x / hour (S, 7,50€/month), 1x / minute (M, 12,50€), 1x / 10 sec (17,50€). I have selected the M package, which sends sensor data to the cloud once a minute for 12,50€/month. The data is stored in the cloud for a period of a week.
Fig.2 shows the solution overview. I connected the io-key gateway to a power supply and two sensors at the field level. The gateway communicates wirelessly with the autosen.cloud. Users can accesses the cloud application through a standard web browser to view dashboards or to change any settings.
Benefits of autosen io-key
In this section, I highlight six of the main benefits of the autosen io-key. Fig.3 presents an overview of the topic.
Benefit 1 | Plug & play: The setup of the autosen io-key is very easy. I just had to connect the power supply and the sensors to the gateway via M12 connectors, open the autosen.cloud URL in my browser, enter a custom subdomain name, the gateway IMEI number from the back of the device, my customer information, and I was ready to go. The complete process took me about 15 minutes.
The IO-Link sensors were configured automatically without further parameter settings. Simultaneously, the “Device control” shows that two IODD files, required for sensor identification and auto-configuration, were transferred. These files are provided through the API of the IODD-Finder. If the IODD is not available, the user can upload the file in the cloud. The dashboard on the cloud application shows pre-configured widgets based on the sensor types.
Benefit 2 | Wireless communication: autosen io-key uses NB-IoT for wireless communication. NB-IoT is relying on 4G coverage which works well indoors and in dense urban areas or deep within the urban infrastructure. NB-IoT has a low cost of communication hardware (radio module <5$), enabling a cost-effective built of devices. This quality makes io-key a perfect fit for use cases which only require a few bytes of data to be transmitted per device per day in remote use cases.
Benefit 3 | Dashboard monitoring: The sensor data is transmitted to the autosen.cloud where the user can access dashboards with various types of widgets. The user can see current values in near real time or access historic data for a given time period. Fig.4 shows the dashboard for my setup.
Benefit 4 | Alarms and notifications: The io-key function “Smart Rules” allows users to create custom alarms or operations that are triggered based on exceeding thresholds, missing measurements, etc. Alarms can be categorized by criticality and send an SMS or email to notify the user outside the cloud applications.
Benefit 5 | Control outputs: The io-key can be used for switching an output on and off. The functions are configured in the autosen.cloud and then run independently of the transmission interval at the gateway device. The switching delay of < 3 seconds shows a fit for non-critical use cases.
Benefit 6 | Partner network: Most of the use cases can be solved with the autosen io-key out-of-the-box but when it comes to integration of third party systems, data analytics, or custom requirements it’s good to know that this product has a strong partner network which is versatile in their ecosystem and ready to help.
Limitations of autosen io-key
In order to better understand if the product suits your use case, let’s take a look at the limitations and identify potential pain points (Fig.5).
Limitation 1 | Edge computing: The lowest possible latency between the data acquisition and the decision-making can be critical and only a fraction of the sensor data is meaningful in post-analytics. Unfortunately, the io-key offers no possibility to aggregate data, run a predictive model, or implement custom apps on the device. The autosen io-key is a closed system. You can’t move parts of your workload to the device or extend its functionality with your own business logic. In the case of disconnecttion due to gateway device problems, you will even lose your data because there is no data storage on the device.
On the cloud part, we are limited to the dashboard and alarm functionality provided by the IoT platform, based on Cumulocity IoT. There is no self-service to create, for example, API-Keys to extract the data or stream it into third-party applications. This requires individual contact with the io-key partner ecosystem and will result in additional costs. Sensor data is stored on the cloud only for one week and then deleted, longer storage periods need to be added as an additional cloud memory service.
Limitation 2 | Wireless communication: As of January 2021, NB-IoT is only piloted and tested in Europe and is not available worldwide. Network and tower handoffs are a problem, so NB-IoT is best suited for primarily static assets, like meters and sensors in a fixed location, rather than moving assets. io-key does not support firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) or file transfers, because sending larger amounts to the device is hard with NB-IoT. With a data upload rate of about 20Kbps, which is lower compared to competing technologies (LTE-M, LoRaWAN). It does not allow real-time, audio-, or video communication. The data requirements of your use cases need to be carefully considered. As an example, a condition monitoring use case with vibration analysis and diagnostics requires a meaningful sampling frequency according to the Nyquist Theorem (in order to adequately reproduce a signal it should be periodically sampled at a rate that is 2X the highest frequency). In most applications, this generates big data amounts that io-key’s limited processing power and data transmission capabilities can’t handle at the current moment.
Limitation 3 | Transmission intervals: If a sensor sends multiple values, they are transmitted as one message. Only the value which is provided at the transmission interval is extracted and sent to the cloud. autosen claims that this fits applications ranging from infrequent to constant queries. From my perspective, these intervals are suitable for occasional queries but they have a clear limitation for real-time monitoring of equipment position, material status, predictive maintenance, or critical communication. autosen io-key fits non-critical use cases with low data-producing requirements.
Limitation 4 | Large installations: Industrial use cases often require the acquisition or control of multiple digital actuators and sensors in a restricted space, such as in pick-to-light systems. io-key only supports two digital outputs. The io-key has a master on board and can’t be connected to another master. It would be a great benefit to support an IO-Link hub that functions as an IO-Link device to provide additional digital input/outputs.
Limitation 5 | Harsh environments: The device has the protection rating IP65, it is dustproof and waterproof. This protection level is effective against the ingress of dust with a test duration of up to 8 hours based on airflow and effective against water projected by a nozzle (6.3 mm / 0.25 in) against the enclosure from any direction with a test duration of 1 minute per square meter for at last 3 minutes. The supported operating temperatures range from -25 °C to +60 °C which is less than common industrial ranges from -40 °C to +70 °C. The device is suitable for light applications and cabinet solutions. In harsh environments, for example in a welding environment or outdoor applications, the device could be damaged. The typical industrial-grade protection level is IP67.
Limitation 6 | IO-Link parameterization: As of January 2021, there is no possibility to save, load, or add custom parameterization of IO-Link devices. The automatic configuration of the io-key works well for simple sensors and use cases but in more complex scenarios the devices need to be parametrized. It would be great to see the possibility to configure the devices within the cloud-based application as I have suggested in another article: IO-Link JSON Integration: A Boost for Industry 4.0?
Summary and outlook
autosen io-key shines as an easy-to-use solution and is a true opener for customers into the Industry 4.0 and IIoT world. The low entry barrier with an easy setup and low costs demonstrates the remote monitoring benefits of IoT. We are sure that this product will further grow the demand and acceptance for cloud-based solutions and IoT products in industrial scenarios. Besides the user-friendliness and applicability in a wide range of monitoring use cases, I have discussed the limitations for large industry-grade installations with specific customer requirements and edge computing demands.
As the IO-Link technology adoption grows, more vendors will enter the market. In the next one to two years, we will see more IO-Link masters with gateway functionality. IO-Link gateways will become open ecosystems with enough computational power to support over-the-air orchestration of containerized applications. These devices will embrace message-oriented architectures with MQTT, RESTful web services, and OPC UA servers using standardized data models, as discussed in the article: IO-Link JSON Integration: A Boost for Industry 4.0?. On the connectivity part, we will see gateways with wireless, IO-Link, and Fieldbus communication.
The high integration between field devices and gateways will eliminate the need for multiple devices by saving costs, and will drive operational excellence even further. Integrated IO-Link gateways have the potential to solve the limitations and provide additional benefits to customers. Some vendors already sell IO-Link master gateways on the market, which still often require high efforts in configuration, integration, and implementation. This market trend shows interesting opportunities for vendors like KUNBUS, Harting, Schildknecht, ifm, or Hilscher.
As the technology becomes more available through brand labeling, we will see lower entry barriers for competitors and falling prices for customers, which leads us to the need for higher software-based differentiation. Another trend combined with the growing number of IP capable devices is that we need technology to enable decentralized device-to-device communication at the field level, a topic for another story.