Sensors – Smaller. Smarter. Affordable
Published by : Industrial Automation
How the new generation of sensors is changing the world of manufacturing and beyond, enabling smart devices that have permeated all aspects of life.
To say that sensors are revolutionising industry is stating the obvious. Ever since the first crude sensor was devised by Warren S Johnson who invented the first electrical thermostat in 1883, sensors have been used to great advantage even as the first modern sensor in the true sense came much later. So what are the latest trends in Sensors and Controls? “A significant trend is integration of processing and control functions in sensors. This is driven by market demands and advances in manufacturing technology. Hence, sensors are becoming smarter and pack more functionality in the given size,” says Murali Babu Muthukrishnan, Director of Product Development, Ittiam Systems Pvt Ltd. With 7 patents issued in the field of imaging, video and systems, Muthukrishnan has over 24 years of professional experience in the field of audio, video, imaging and signal processing systems. “Key markets that drive this trend are Automotive, Wearables, and IoT. Advances in MEMS sensors have enabled micro scale measurements and data collection. Sensors are also becoming ‘internet ready’ through mobile or Wi-Fi networks,” he adds.
“Sensors are evolving at a rapid pace. Sensors have stopped being dumb products which used to report what is happening in the field. Nowadays more and more sensors are becoming intelligent meaning sensors themselves perform the logic operations and control the outcome. The reliance on Control system to take decision based on sensor inputs are getting reduced, enabling industry to have faster and better response to control their machines and plants,” opines Samir Desai, Head of Market Product Management, SICK India Pvt Ltd. The Germany-based SICK is one of the world’s leading producers of sensors and sensor solutions for industrial applications – a technology and market leader in Factory and Logistics Automation as well as Process Automation.
“The industry is moving towards smart manufacturing and automation is paving the way for integrating business intelligence, operational technology and information technology. This necessitates acquiring real-time information related to processes and transactions, which calls for intelligent sensors that can provide live data connected to IIoT,” states Javind Syed Feroz, General Manager, EV R&D, who is passionate global R&D expert, and a technology enthusiast currently working on advanced electric vehicle mobility systems in 2- and 3- wheelers domain. “We are at the verge of a technological changeover from Machine age to Artificial Intelligence age where these advanced sensors will play a major role in successful deployment of IoT, IIoT and AI systems to the manufacturing industry and process automation,” asserts Javed.
So sensors today have changed and changed dramatically. They have become smaller, smarter and affordable, also much more reliable, laying the foundation for the fourth industrial revolution. How is this impacting automation? “Industries today are far more data driven in their decision making. This paradigm shift of data driven outcomes is indeed pushing for more automation of industrial as well as management processes. Smarter yet inexpensive sensors are enabling this change. Industrial quality control and inspection are being automated with the help of smart sensors that can be trained to identify defects,” says Muthukrishnan. According to him, drones and robotics are examples of automation enabled by smart sensors and data analytics. Smart buildings and cities are increasingly relying on sensors for automation of access controls and traffic regulation.
Desai also agrees that smart and intelligent sensors often reduce the costly hardware required for control systems and thereby the overall cost of executing the project is reduced to a great extent. “One good example of smarter, cost effective and smaller sensors impacting automation is the advent of Automated Guided Vehicles or Carts (AGV/AGC). These are replacing conventional way of transporting goods within a plant. Bulky, unwieldy and maintenance prone conveyor belts are replaced by sleek AGVs/AGCs fitted with smart sensors, which facilitate navigational aids and anti-collision protection, meeting stringent industry guidelines,” he elaborates.
“Technologies like MEMS (micro electro mechanical system), nano devices and advanced CSP (chip scale packaging) have reduced the cost of sensors, and coupled with miniaturisation, these sensors have already found their way into most advanced industrial automation systems,” says Javed. According to him, small foot print, low power consumption, sensitivity, repeatability, longer life, user friendliness, low cost and light weight makes these sensors an ideal choice for automation system developers mainly involved in automating connected manufacturing systems.
How are sensors facilitating IIoT implementation? According to Pranjal Jha, Senior Manager, Digital Presales & Solutioning (IoT, ML, AI, Robotics, Drones, AR/VR and Innovation), IIoT makes use of smart sensors to make manufacturing and industrial processes more efficient and streamlined. “What IIoT does is leverage the power of these smart devices and coupled with real-time analytics, make sense of the machines that have suddenly begun to ‘talk’ after working silently for years. Thus empowered, machines have now become better than humans at capturing and analysing data in real time, and much faster in communicating important information for faster execution,” says Jha, who has 12 years of extensive experience in Digital Sales, Presales and Solutioning, and has built alliance with Hitachi from scratch for Wipro & Tech Mahindra for IoT and ML.
“From counting the quantity to measuring the quality, sensors support IIoT and digital transformation initiatives. Of course, these sensors have to be compliant with basic TPM (trusted platform modules) as these will be one of the high risk targets as they are vital for data integrity,” says Javed. These sensors and controls ensure a stable and risk free data over IIoT networks. But there are serious implications if the security aspect is ignored. “As these are connected to real world assets, there can be serious consequences if the security layer is not taken care, hence compliance with relevant safety standards is essential,” cautions Javed.
“The IoT and Industry 4.0 buzzwords have also reached the sensors and they are going to play a pivotal role in it since the paramount task of generating data is within the confines of sensors,” says Desai. Industry 4.0 and IoT entail data collection, data transportation, data storage and data analytics to make sense of data and take possible action to improve productivity and create a better ecosystem which can respond to customers’ need which are now more dynamic. “Sensors are now accommodating more and more requests from industry to ensure smooth flow of data to clouds and this is where connected sensors play important role using I/O Link and Ethernet TCP/IP connectivity,” Desai emphasises.
For Muthukrishnan, sensors are indeed at the forefront of driving the whole IIoT implementation. Medical probes and wearables equipped with compact sensors are enabling very accurate and minute prognosis. At the other end of the spectrum, sensors are enabling data collection and control of large equipment in remote locations such as wind farms, oil rigs and deep excavations. MEMS sensors have also facilitated more accurate measurement and collection of temperature, pressure and pollution levels. “IIoT by definition enables remote monitoring and control of devices from the safety and comfort of a central location. This is the next wave of industrial revolution enabled by digital transformation,” says Muthukrishnan.
But are sensors making the human element redundant in manufacturing? Muthukrishnan does not feel so. Sensors have enabled access to spaces that are either too complex to reach or too fine to measure through any human intervention. Automation has enormously increased the scale and operational efficiency in manufacturing while still making it imperative that human decisions are made at higher level,” he says. Desai too opines that certain process can easily be automated and human element can be reduced to a large extent to achieve better quality output. But this, according to him, also opens up another high tech industry which will need more white collar people who will be involved in deploying such sensors and automation tasks or will be busy analysing the data collected thereon. “So we see that as far as workforce is concerned, it will move from labour intensive to intelligent intensive requiring a different level of skill sets where every machines and every human being is connected, says Desai.
“The human element will never be redundant,” concurs Pranjal Jha. Even as major complex processes in manufacturing industry that were earlier monitored, managed and controlled by human intervention are now automated due to IIoT, the human element still prevails, Jha elaborates. “Instead of talking about redundancy, I would say the correct thing to say precise and safe mode for manufacturing processes with human supervision,” he asserts.
Finally, what about data deluge? There are certainly some disadvantages here? Collecting and archiving huge data from sensors does present a major challenge to be managed, according to Muthukrishnan, but he says as compute resources and storage get cheaper, this data deluge can be converted into an opportunity. Desai too is in agreement on this point of data deluge, as people are demanding online access from everywhere and want everything configurable as well as immediately. “However the crux of the matter will be how are we planning to use the data, what data needs to be stored or sent to cloud for storage and further analytics. This is where intelligent sensors come into picture – sensor that relay only specific data,” he says.
Summing up, Javed says data deluge should be considered an opportunity rather than a threat, especially for IT organisations and data centres to build large scale systems that can handle big data and perform analytics, etc. “There will be a tremendous increase in employment in this segment to handle these big data based analytical solutions. The industry is considering data as the next oil, and it is highly evident that these sensors and controllers are going to be the gateway of the next big thing of this era,” he concludes.