Smart Sensors – The Issues at Stake
Published on : Monday 12-09-2022
Experts debate the issues at stake when it comes to Smart Sensors and their advantages over conventional sensors.
Sensors have touched every aspect of human life and activity with applications in every field from household gadgets – microwaves, ovens, refrigerators, TV sets, smartphones and even fans, air conditioners and ambience lighting – everything is controlled by sensors. A recent report by Allied Market Research puts the global sensors market value for 2019 ay USD 166.69 bn which is projected to grow at a CAGR of 8.9% from 2021 to 2028, to reach a whopping USD 345.77 bn. The world of industrial sensors is far smaller, but no less significant. With automation scaling new peaks in the IIoT era, it is sensors that are leading the fourth industrial revolution. The MarketsAndMarkets research report projects the industrial sensors market to grow from USD 20.6 bn in 2021 to USD 31.9 billion by 2026, at a CAGR of 9.1% during forecast period. The key driving factors for the growth of this market include increase in adoption of Industrial 4.0 and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) in manufacturing sectors; surging demand for smart sensor-enabled wearable devices; and technological developments in industrial sensors. Adoption of predictive maintenance in various industries is expected to offer lucrative opportunities to market players in near future. However, within the universe of Industrial sensors, it is the emerging field of smart sensors that is now dominating the discourse, with their ability to gain field information for a range of critical processes. Smart sensors are not just good at doing what conventional sensors do, but are also capable of processing data, and making decisions using logic and machine learning algorithms. Having said that, are Smart Sensors finding it an uphill struggle to displace conventional sensors? Is this true and what could be the reasons for this?
“In a cost-sensitive country like India, where the adoption of Sensors itself is quite low, the adoption of Smart Sensors is expected to be slower. The key benefits of the usage of Smart Sensors lie in the fact that they are ‘Intelligent’ sensors and come with decision taking capabilities. They also perform logical operations. This brings lots of benefits to end-goal as with increased automation comes increased efficiency and lesser error window,” says Sanjay Guhathakurta, Industry Leader, Industrial Products, IBM India, who believes the RoI that lies in the introduction of Smart Sensors has not yet been visible to the common user. “I believe that there are 3 key roadblocks that lie in its adoption: (1) the lack of technical knowledge in the operation of Smart Sensors, (2) the fear of the loss of control on the automated decision making process, and (3) potential higher costs of adoption,” he adds.
“Conventional sensors provide discrete data using transducers; whereas smart sensors can create a great impact by processing real-time data along with powerful diagnostic features across the infrastructure. The former kind of sensor furnishes static data that needs external interference to convert it into meaningful information. Smart sensors, on the other hand, are intelligent enough to proactively process the information and make quick decisions to counter deviations or imbalances across the connected devices and networks,” says Jegajith P T, Director – Embedded Products & Services at Utthunga Technologies. According to him, the single most important factor affecting the transition from conventional to smart sensors is upgrading legacy systems, networks, and infrastructure. “While advanced sensors offer features like real-time diagnostic, artificial intelligence, wireless connectivity, high-end cybersecurity, and so on, a total replacement of traditional sensors with intelligent ones is easier said than done,” he points out.
Sharada Prahladrao, Editor & Public Relations Manager, ARC Advisory Group, who is quite familiar with the latest technology trends from a vantage position, is of the view that although the demand for smart sensors with greater capabilities to manage processes with increased energy efficiency, safety, and compliance to stringent environmental regulations is growing, there seems to be an initial hesitation to replace conventional sensors. “The burning questions are: does it justify the investment and what are its advantages? Overriding these doubts is the reluctance to change from the old way of doing things, ‘because it works perfectly well’,” she asks.
“Yes, it’s true to a significant extent,” agrees Sameer Gandhi, Managing Director, OMRON Automation, India. According to him, some of the key reasons behind this trend is cost to be incurred (commercially smart sensors are more expensive than conventional sensors), the economic viability, the preparedness to accept the technology and lack of the desired infrastructure. Network quality and coverage is also an important issue for remote areas. “Generally smart sensors are not very complex to use but they need certain skillsets in terms of calibration, etc.,” he says.
“Smart sensors need a CPU to process the information, this is a cost factor. Without a significant USP of a digital sensor, there is no reason to use it instead of an analog sensor, and this is where JUMO's work starts,” says Rupesh Desale, Director, Jumo India Pvt Ltd.
Factors to consider
What are the technical issues in installation, commissioning and constant calibration of smart sensors? What are aspects to consider in remote maintenance?
“For a fact, smart sensors are easy to install, commission, and calibrate. However, the major challenge lies in the skill and technical know-how for installing and operationalising them,” says Jegajith P T, Once installed, the supporting applications render friendly interfaces to re-calibrate or configure as per the requirements. According to him, in the event of smart sensors replacing the conventional ones, the existing infrastructure must support minimum prerequisites across the layers of operations.
To Sanjay Guhathakurta, the key reason why constant calibration is a need for Smart Sensors is that it needs to adjust to the incidents surrounding it, thereby taking more intelligent and practical decisions. However, the lack of adequate knowhow in implementing Smart Sensors and also maintaining them in due course – adds to the complexity. “The government and local bodies have a huge responsibility in ensuring a faster adoption of Smart Sensors, especially in industrial automation and shop floors. This can also be particularly beneficial in hazardous conditions where manual intervention is an impossibility. Also when adopted successfully to replace 24x7 monitoring support, Smart Sensors offer an immediate cost benefit,” he opines.
Sharada Prahladrao, concurs with this view. “Smart sensors must be installed and commissioned by qualified technical personnel in compliance with applicable codes and the manufacturer’s recommendations. Failure to do so may result in catastrophe. Smart sensor integration requires a high level of expertise to ensure interoperability,” he says.
“There are no critical concerns related to installation, commissioning and calibration of smart sensors however they do need specific skill sets to perform self-identification, smart calibration and remote configuration,” says Vinod Raphael, Country Business Head, OMRON Device & Module Solutions Business Division, India. According to him, another major roadblock in getting the maximum out of the sensors’ performance is the network quality and reliability. Owing to the nature of the sensors, a sturdy network is the prime requirement for ensuring the right operations, the deliverables including maintenance. “None of the Smart sensors can do their job in the absence of a good network. Since the adoption rate is gradually rising, it’s in the nascent stage, the business and service ecosystem is yet to acquire the desired level of evolution and sophistication,” he emphasises.
Rupesh Desale agrees with the above observation and adds, the staff obviously needs to be better trained, as the additional intelligence of the sensor also needs to be handled. This know-how is necessary for installation, commissioning, and calibration. “The personnel training generate costs, which in turn must lead to a return on investment. Here, too, a manufacturer such as JUMO must think about how this training effort can be minimised as much as possible through intuitive products,” he adds, from the vendor perspective.
From sensors to the cloud
Is this just a slogan or is it happening really? What are the practical issues? Do you expect 5G to bring in a big change?
“Smart Sensors are a reality and here to stay. These are aimed to facilitate industrial operations, reduce risks and reduce decision making errors due to manual judgement,” says Sanjay Guhathakurta, for whom, the two key practical issues can be the initial cost of adoption and the high network speed. “Fortunately, India is just at the cusp of a 5G revolution with the 5G auctions recently having taken place. Most telecom providers are quite excited about this with some of them already infrastructure-ready. With the Government offering incentives on Smart Sensor-adoption and 5G being available, both these two practical issues should be easily resolved,” he says, optimistically.
“While the slogan ‘Sensor-to-Cloud’ is the most happening game in the gamut of industrial automation, the transformation on the ground level is not as fast as expected. The whole idea of intelligent sensors is based on their ability to integrate with cloud platforms and technologies,” says Jegajith P T matter of factly. According to him, the popularity and applications of smart sensors are expanding due to advantages such as scalability, quick and easy processing and monitoring, efficient and secure programming and analysis, and virtualisation, etc.
To Sameer Gandhi, the driving force that’s making ‘Sensor-to-Cloud’ a reality is ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). OMRON has been working on presenting offerings in the Sensors arena that have utility to create IoT based solutions across varied industries like building automation, factory automation, logistics automation, home appliances, vending machines, robotics, automotive, energy and medical equipment. “These are highly compact and durable sensors, which when embedded in equipment/devices, collect data and contribute to the proper functioning of the complete solution. This is possible owing to the technologies they come imparted with (such as – human sensing, condition sensing, heat sensing, flow sensing, object sensing, distance sensing, and vibration sensing to name a few) and how they are able to create harmonies with the internet. Connectivity, speed, reliability are going to be the major differentiation factors for sensor based cloud communication,” Sameer elaborates.
“Cloud solutions are becoming more and more important, that’s why JUMO started its own cloud product ‘JUMO Cloud’ in 2020, says Rupesh Desale and adds how this year JUMO started with the presentation of its first product, JUMO hydroTRANS: a temperature, humidity, and CO2 transmitter with a Single Pair Ethernet (SPE) interface. The new solution was presented at the premiere at the trade fair ACHEMA 2022 in Frankfurt/Main, Germany. “It delivers the user a full Ethernet-based communication experience between the sensor (JUMO hydroTRANS) and cloud (JUMO Cloud). This way, the number of needed components in an application can be reduced to a minimum so ‘from the sensor to the cloud’ is not just a slogan, for JUMO it is already a reality today,” he explains.
Since sensors are intelligent devices with the possibility to connect to the internet, how would the cybersecurity aspects get addressed?
“Interoperability and increased connectivity are like double-edged swords for sensors. Although connectivity simplifies their installation and streamlines the distribution of collected data, the IIoT has also made it easier for hackers to use sensors to break into industrial networks,” observes Sharada Prahladrao, for whom sensor-based platforms and applications are highly vulnerable to cyber-attacks, exposing assets to sensor network-based cyber threats. The cybersecurity aspects, according to Sharada, can be addressed by:
i. Adequate sensor and sensor network infrastructure protection
ii. Developing secure information monitoring systems
iii. Ensuring that supporting interfaces are authenticated and secure
iv. Bridging the skills gap to ensure that devices are being used in a secure manner, and
v. Regular security updates.
“Issues associated with data protection in Smart Sensors are widely recognised. Fortunately most Sensor manufacturers have been looking into it and most Smart Sensors now come with very strong encryptions that would take even the smartest supercomputer a few billion years to crack them. However, it is still advisable to store the data in secure cloud networks rather than on-premise systems (which are far more vulnerable),” says Sanjay Guhathakurta.
According to Vinod Raphael, the major concern for cybersecurity stems from the data collection coming from multiple and varied kinds of sensors. “Generally all sensing devices will not be connected directly with Cloud and it will be operated via PLC so concern of cybersecurity does get addressed. It also gets managed via ensuring presence of adequate sensor and sensor network infrastructure protection, and secure information monitoring systems,” he points out. Automation solution providers need to work in great collaboration with the customers and system developers to come up with the right and practical solutions so as to protect the network infrastructure including the sensors that are integrated there. “Sensor robustness and inbuilt algorithm security also matters a lot along with the kind of communication platform and cloud security system placed in there,” says Vinod.
“Any device that hangs freely on the Internet must have appropriate security measures in place; otherwise, it is a security breach and can become a major problem. In order to take the right steps here as a manufacturer and user, there are corresponding standards in Germany, of particular interest here is IEC 62443, which all well-known manufacturers follow as a result,” says Rupesh Desale.
Retrofitting smart sensors
How do you service existing brownfield plants? Is it possible to have a mix of conventional sensors and smart sensors in one system without expensive interposing devices and gateways?
“Yes. It is possible to have a mix of conventional and smart sensors for brownfields. Upgrading the infrastructure with appropriate interfaces connecting the mixed bag of sensors can do a lot of good without a major revamp of the existing systems,” says Jegajith P T.
“While it is certainly technically possible to have a hybrid mix of conventional sensors (RFID, etc.), and Smart Sensors, the goal should always be to shift to a complete transformation into a Smart Sensor world,” expresses Sanjay Guhathakurta. According to him, a hybrid model also comes with long-term compatibility issues. Hence a hybrid model should be considered only as an intermediate step.
According to Sharada Prahladrao, brownfield facilities face the dual challenges of aging plant equipment and having to adapt to new environmental regulatory requirements. Retrofitting a plant with a mix of conventional and smart sensors is possible after careful evaluation of the processes involved. “Businesses can opt for different types of solutions to work around existing constraints. For example, plants that have restricted space can consider compact, plug-and-play solutions. Retrofitting is possible for almost all systems, regardless of its age,” she says.
“We can service existing brownfield plants by connecting the sensors with IO link masters and analyse the status of these sensors with real data from the field. It is possible to have a mix of conventional sensors and smart sensors in existing brownfield plants. There is no need to have additional gateways as sensors would be connected to the PLC or Local servers,” explains Sameer Gandhi.
“Today, existing brownfield plants have installations for common sensor signal types like 4...20 mA. With the new interface SPE for new sensor products, many of the existing wire installations can also be used in the future because SPE just needs a single pair of wires for digital communication via protocols like MQTT or Modbus TCP,” says Rupesh Desale. “Also, the power supply works over this single pair (PoDL = Power over Data Line) which means that the need for new wire installations in brownfield applications is reduced to a minimum,” he concludes.
(Note: The responses of various experts featured in this story are their personal views and not necessarily of the companies or organisations they represent. The full interviews are hosted online at https://www.iedcommunications.com/interviews)