Smart sensors are easy to install and integrate
Published on : Saturday 04-09-2021
Anand Gijare, Founder and Principal Analyst, Sensors Research and Publications.
What are the roles sensors are performing in the field of industrial automation today?
Connect, Control and Monitor. This is how modern sensors are contributing to next-generation industrial automation. Modern sensors are truly providing a real meaning to automation. These sensors provide real time operational control and with minimised human interference. Smart sensors make machinery, tools and other devices learn, function and operate by themselves.
Smart sensors are single chip solutions of very small size and occupy less space in configuration and work with small signals. To know how smart sensors function in industrial automation, we need to know what smart sensors are. We know that conventional sensors are used for many years to sense physical change in the environment, i.e., pressure, temperature or motion. Smart sensors or sensors that we are talking about here use transducers. Transducers convert a non-electrical signal into an electrical signal. Transducers are the key component behind the change of scene. Conventional sensors have limited function and that is to respond to physical changes which facilitate the ‘plug and play’ of sensors to networks and instrumentation systems.
Smart sensors continuously broadcast information about their status and allow computation of various statistical parameters such as average, variance and standard deviation for the set of measurements. Smart sensors are multi-sensing and a single smart sensor can measure pressure, temperature, gas flow, surface acoustic pressure, and humidity.
Smart sensors are easy to install and can be integrated in each machine, tools, vehicles, and every set of instruments that is used in a manufacturing process. It covers the entire production line, inventory to production. Smart sensor networks will help factories to be automated and connected with an intention to maximise communication between machine to machine by seamless connectivity between all networking and computing layers in the factory and distributed in monitoring offices outside the factory.
Smart sensors are not just providing automation of the machines or tools but provide control and management of information systems for the entire factory infrastructure. Modern sensors contribute by continuously providing machine generated data and patterns. This data is processed and analysed using modern machine learning technologies, and data analytics for insights, intelligence and actions.
Cheaper, low-cost sensors are getting popular. Is there a trade-off here and the implications?
Increasing use of sensors has brought down their costs from about $1.5 per unit to about $035 per unit and some come even cheaper, which are use-and-throw sensors that are used in RFID tags and beacons. Smart sensors are easy to install, calibrate and need no or nominal wiring and hardware becomes very cost effective.
Sensors are becoming cheaper in price but if they are of cheap quality then it is a matter of concern. Microchips used in the sensors are the heart and brain of that sensor and it is very important to see what quality of microchip is used in a sensor. Again, there are multi-functional sensors that can bring down the workloads.
The major costs for sensors used in industrial automation today are batteries and it also hampers their flexibility and ease of use (monitoring and changing batteries is a daunting task). Many sensor manufacturers claim that their sensor batteries stay functioning for 10 years but on average sensor batteries need to be replaced in 3 to 4 years.
Using wireless sensors add costs of digitisation, process automation, software installation and maintenance, data processing and analytics software, skilled staff to handle software or app-based industry, training and skill development costs, wear and tear, maintenance of sensors, monitoring batteries of sensors, high speed internet connectivity, high processing computers and storage (mostly cloud storage) and so on.
At the other end, sensors are getting smarter. What exactly is smart about smart sensors? Is it really smart to opt for a smart sensor?
Using smart sensors needs a different environment than using conventional mechanical sensors. Smart sensors are effective only if a comprehensive policy of where the entire manufacturing process is automated. It is very necessary that the automation process flows through every part of the manufacturing cycle from vendors to dealers and after sales markets.
Modern industrial automation does not focus only on operations but involves an entire chain of work for scalable flexibility and improved efficiency. This helps in reducing margins of task errors to a very low percentage compared to human operated task errors.
But this involves the entire business in the process which is not an easy part for industries that work in silos. This is where today’s smart industrial automation has a big challenge. So, use of smart sensors can be a smart decision if the entire business wants to become smart. Not a single portion of the business.
The topics of digital transformation like data analytics and AI/ML all depend on availability of 'good' data. What are the advancements in sensor technology to capture data which is difficult to obtain?
In industrial automation edge devices such as machines and equipment embedded with smart sensors will be the key data suppliers. We should note that machine generated data comes in terabytes and it is unstructured format. Such data is hard to process by human efforts, and therefore needs platforms such as big data analytics and artificial intelligence for data storage, processing, analytics and insight generation.
The data generated from sensors is in terabytes and keeps flowing continuously. The data quality also depends on the placement of sensors. In industrial applications sensors are placed on high temperature equipment such as boilers and on machines or on a component. Several environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, heat, pressure, vibrations, motion and such other can affect sensor function. Therefore, preparing sensors to adapt the environment in which they sit is very important for generating good quality data.
Second parameter that hampers data quality is congested and unstable wireless networks. Especially when sensors are connected in a network and data is used in the form of sensor fusion it is important that each sensor sends that in the order mentioned. However, poor networks can jeopardise the sequence and cause issues at the edge.
Third is data analytics platforms where data is processed and stored in different compartments. There are several analytics platforms available today including Apache Hadoop, Kafka, or Spark. Design and architecture of data filtration and compartmenting data and releasing unwanted data from the system is crucial for retaining good data and removing unwanted ones.
What are the emerging trends in sensors that will further increase efficiency?
Batteryless or self-powered sensors are the next big thing to watch. Batteryless sensors harvest energy from environmental resources. These sensors are reducing efforts on monitoring and changing batteries. But that cannot be the only qualification for batteryless sensors that need to be equally efficient in performance and results. At present there are few sensors used for remote asset monitoring. In industrial automation batteryless sensors are available to monitor steam traps and machine health.
Sensor Fusion is a technology where it builds the ability of sensors to monitor multiple data inputs. Sensor fusion helps to put together data from various sensors to create a larger picture, a holistic view which certainly provides more clarity. Clarity helps in understanding the root cause, depth of the issue or reasons for performance. Sensors with multiple data inputs will become authoritative in such scenarios. They will save on adding multiple devices as well as reduce efforts on sensor network management, and maintenance. The importance of data integrated using sensor fusion technology is growing in industrial automation.
Improvements on digital network protocols is a big breakthrough in machine to machine and machine to operator communication. Vendor independent protocols are becoming a promising proposition for higher levels of standards in sensor communications.
Anand Gijare is a Founder and Principal Analyst at Sensors Research and Publications; a dedicated market research service provider for wireless sensors and sensor-based applications in healthcare, industry, and defence. Anand has over 18 years of consulting experience in emerging technology and high ticket sales function consulting. He has helped over 130 CEOs and decision-makers to sort issues regarding revenue generation, market expansions, and product designing in the high ticket business. He writes about smart-sensors developments and disrupting business opportunities based on smart sensors on various platforms.