Smart Sensors and Manufacturing Transformation
Published on : Wednesday 08-09-2021
Smart sensors and the digitisation of manufacturing plants will help MSME companies to improve productivity and quality, says Darshana Thakkar.
Like so many other industries, manufacturing has become increasingly data-driven in its processes and decision making – and the introduction of sensors in manufacturing is a key reason for this drastic change. The introduction of new processes and technologies comes with many challenges. But the benefits of sensor technology will enable manufacturing companies to become competitive by increasing productivity, decreasing downtime and achieving greater efficiency in plant operations.
In our country, most of the large size and several mid-size companies have adopted at least some level of automation in their plant operations. These companies are already leveraging the benefits of the latest technologies like Industry 4.0 and IIoT. While MSME companies in India are contributing around 30% to the GDP of our nation, technology adoption is very low among them.
There are several factors behind the lower adoption of technologies in MSMEs. On top of all is higher capital investment required for Technological Transformation. The second most important factor is lack of knowledge about suitable and cost-effective technology solutions that fit in the budget and provide the right catalyst for Digital Transformation. My work and efforts are directed towards transforming MSMEs and startups in India.
To use a sensor in any equipment or plant is a very basic kind of automation and affordable solution for MSME companies. Let me explain some basics, features and applications of sensors to be used in an industrial environment for various purposes.
What is a sensor?
A sensor is a device that detects changes in the plant or industrial environment and responds with a signal or output that is passed on to another system. A sensor thus converts a physical phenomenon into a measurable analog voltage or a digital signal converted into a readable display or transmitted for further processing.
In the manufacturing environment abnormality occurs in various forms. Different parameters may go beyond a specified limit. In the absence of proper monitoring and timely actions, this may cause an accident or damage to parts, equipment, machinery and the workers as well. To diagnose such abnormality during the process, different types of sensors are widely used in manufacturing plants. These include, but are not limited to:
a. Temperature sensor
b. Proximity sensor
d. IR sensor (infrared sensor)
e. Pressure sensor
f. Light sensor
g. Ultrasonic sensor, and
h. Smoke, gas, and alcohol sensor.
In manufacturing process automation, sensors are working as a foundation. Furthermore, with the advance of digital technologies and the advent of Industry 4.0, the capability of sensors continuously improves.
Sensors vs smart sensors
While the basic sensor can only sense and emit unprocessed signals to an outer system, the smart sensor is designed with many functions such as self-identification, self-testing, self-confirmation, or self-adaptation. A smart sensor can perceive, reason, compute and communicate.
In the era of Industry 4.0, many smart sensors are used in the automation process. The smart sensor has intelligent capabilities such as wireless communication and having an on-board microcontroller. It is used for analog to digital conversion, digital processing, decision making, and two-way communications.
Why smart sensors?
The following are a few characteristics of smart sensors:
1. Self-calibration: adjust deviation of output of sensors from the desired value
2. Communication: broadcast information about its status
3. Computation: this allows to obtain the average, variance, and standard deviation for the set of measurements, and
4. Multi sensing: a single smart sensor can measure, pressure, temperature, humidity, gas flow and infrared, chemical reaction, surface acoustic, vapour, etc.
In our industries, while many companies are operating for many years, automation of the manufacturing process is very limited. The existing machinery is not equipped with the latest technologies in many organisations; especially the Micro and Small & Medium Enterprises that are operating with limited resources. For MSME companies to replace the plant and machinery as a whole is not feasible and affordable at all. But considering the current global competition, safety requirements and the scarcity of resources, automation has become a need for any industry.
To start with, there is no need to replace the plant and machinery at all. To attach various sensors with existing plants and machinery is much easier and simpler. This is a cost-effective solution for partial automation in MSME companies
Today, thanks to technology, people in the manufacturing world know there is a way to easily collect data from older equipment. Here I am trying to explain how small and simple changes with the help of various sensors in manufacturing plants help in protection of the plant by obtaining the required data for decision making. There is no need to replace or upgrade machines, just retrofitting a few sensors can accomplish the task. These include:
Temperature sensors: in a manufacturing plant, many machines require specific surrounding temperature and device temperature to perform safely and efficiently. If such temperature sensors are installed in plants and machinery, they help identify temperature variation and give appropriate signals promptly to safeguard from damage/accident. There are a few sub-categories of temperature sensors like thermocouples, resistor temperature detectors (RTDs), thermistors, IC and infrared sensors to choose for particular application.
Proximity sensors: this type of sensor detects the presence or absence of a nearby object, or properties of that object, and converts it into a signal which can be easily read by a user in the form of display, light, alarm, etc. The most popular example of using a proximity sensor is in the vehicle. On the reversal of a car, if any object is in a specific range, it gives an alarm to prevent an accident. Similarly, the same sensor is being used in manufacturing plants to warn the proximity of any machine.
Pressure sensors: many devices need to be operated at a specific pressure. These include hydraulic and pneumatic systems. Any deviation from the standard pressure range is identified by these sensors and the installed IoT device if any notifies the system administrator about any problems. In cases where IoT devices are not installed, the sensor gives a signal in any other form like a flashlight or alarm to notify the concerned people about the abnormality.
IR sensors: this is an infrared sensor used to detect environmental changes and to detect a variety of chemicals and heat leaks in the surrounding. The most common use of these sensors is in medical devices, smartphones, smartwatches, home appliances, remote control, etc.
Accelerometer sensors: these sensors are used to detect vibrations, tilting, and acceleration. Popular applications are in cellular and media devices, vibration measurement, automotive control and detection, free-fall detection, aircraft and aviation industries, movement detection, sports academy/athletes behaviour monitoring, consumer electronics, industrial and construction sites, etc.
Water quality sensor: water is being used everywhere including in a variety of industries. These sensors are used to monitor water quality. The most common water quality sensors are: chlorine residual, conductivity sensor, pH sensor and turbidity sensor (to measure suspended solids in water).
Chemical/gas sensors: these sensors indicate changes in liquid or changes in the pollution level of the air. Popular examples of chemical sensors are in environmental monitoring and process control to detect the level of harmful chemical gases, in the recycling process of pharma and chemical industries, laboratories, etc. Commonly used gas sensors include: carbon dioxide sensor, breathalyser, carbon monoxide detector, catalytic bead sensor, hydrogen sensor, air pollution sensor, nitrogen oxide sensor, oxygen sensor, ozone monitor, electrochemical gas sensor, hygrometer, etc.
Smoke sensor: smoke sensors are used to detect the presence of smoke, gases and flames in the surrounding area. Smoke sensors are widely used by the manufacturing industry, HVAC, buildings, and accommodation to detect fire.
Motion detection sensors: these sensors are used to detect the physical movement (motion) of humans or any object in a given area. Very useful to detect unauthorised movement in a restricted area. A most popular example of these sensors includes toll plaza, automatic parking systems, automatic door control, boom barrier, smart camera, automated sinks/toilet flusher, hand dryers, automated lighting, AC, fan, etc.
Key applications of smart sensors
The use of smart sensors in manufacturing revolutionises plant operations. Smart sensors can increase production efficiencies and safety in one of many of the following ways:
a. Monitor, control and improve plant operations by connecting disparate devices and systems, enabling different machines to talk to one another.
b. Predict equipment failure and trigger maintenance protocols which help in reducing operation and maintenance costs.
c. Automatically log data for historical records and regulatory compliance
d. Receive notifications of anomalies threatening process and quality standards, and
e. Speed the flow of information and responsiveness
Advantages of sensors
Sensors offer many advantages in a typical industrial environment:
1. Accelerate processes and make them more accurate
2. Collect process and asset data in real-time
3. Monitor processes and assets accurately, reliably and continuously
4. Increase productivity and reduce the total cost of ownership, and
5. Lower energy wastage.
Retrofitting with step-by-step implementation of various sensors and technology across the manufacturing process helps to leverage the benefits of automation to MSMEs companies in a cost-effective manner. For budgetary controls, ‘Transform your shop floor with just one sensor at a time’. This is the best strategy for MSME companies to adopt plant automation.
Smart sensors and the digitisation of manufacturing plants will help MSME companies to improve productivity and quality. Organisations will be more profitable as a result of greater accuracy throughout the plant.
Darshana Thakkar is MSME Transformation Specialist and Founder, Transformation – The Strategy Hub. An Electrical Engineer followed by MBA – Operations with rich industry experience, Darshana is an expert in transformation, cost reduction, and utilisation of resources. She has invested 25 years in transforming Micro and Small Enterprises. Her rich experience in resolving pain areas and real-life problems of SMEs helps organisations achieve quick results. Her expertise in managing business operations with limited resources helps clients transform their business practices from person driven to system driven with existing resources.
Darshana has helped many organisations to increase profitability and achieve sustainable growth. She is passionate to support the start-up ecosystem of our country. She is associated with CED, Government of Gujarat as a Business Function Expert in the Entrepreneurship Development program, as faculty for industrial subjects in the Second Generation Program (SGP), and as a start-up mentor and member of the start-up selection committee in the CED incubation centre.