Sensors are the eyes and ears of any industrial automation setup
Published on : Saturday 04-09-2021
Harish G Kashyap, Principal Oil & Gas Consultant & Digital Transformation Enthusiast.
What are the roles sensors are performing in the field of industrial automation today?
Ever since the big bang and evolution of life on Earth happened, Homo Sapiens (or humans) have by far been the unheralded species that beheld the apex position of all life forms co-inhabiting our planet. The technological advancement and intelligence of humans is so cosmic that post the penultimate origin event, we are the only announced species in the universe that have the technology to prevent our own extinction.
So what is that keeps us – the humans – at the pinnacle? The amazingly complex structure/design of the human body machine with its inherent ability to sense and process heterogeneous inputs to respond suitably to various situations, all this, coupled with a multitude of human specific emotions is what makes us unique.
If you deep dive into this would take you to the threshold of the five Senses (touch, taste, sight, sound and smell), that we are gifted with, the moment we step into this world. The organs that exhibit these senses are known to us as sense organs.
These sensory organs receive certain inputs which are processed by our brain which receives a signal from one of these 5 senses and then responds accordingly internally or externally. It is this concept of intercepting an input, processing it and responding to it – amalgamated with technology – the epic invention by our species, led to the evolution of sensor technology that is currently in use for a plethora of applications for better technological advancements or Industrial revolutions.
Sensors are the eyes and ears of any industrial automation setup be it process plant automation or manufacturing automation. They are primarily used to detect the input and transmit an output electrical signal. This input could be further processed using the emerging technologies Cloud, Fog or Edge computing as per business needs and then an appropriate output signal be transmitted. They basically serve any one of the 3 outcomes – Insight, Foresight or Aid in better and informed decision making.
In today’s unprecedented VUCA landscape, for sustainable, efficient and competitive industrial operations it’s imperative to understand, believe and realise that sensor technology plays an active role in industrial automation.
From simple detection to real time process monitoring to asset condition monitoring or overall asset performance management, sensors today serve an exhaustive list of industrial automation needs. They also aid in continuous measurement/monitoring and precision control in safety and mission critical industries such as process plants, especially, oil & gas, refineries, specialty chemicals, petrochemicals, etc.
Cheaper, low-cost sensors are getting popular. Is there a trade-off here and the implications?
Nowadays we could get a sensor for just $5-$6. Is this cheap? Or rather is this cost effective? Well it depends on the business and scale/volume of application. If you plan to produce 20 million products with $5 sensors each then the sensor budget would mount to or even exceed a whopping $100M.
The pressure on cost cutting for the hardware is more in recent times and it’s believed that value addition is more from the technology/software embedded in it than the hardware involved. In general as is the case, a low cost sensor is found to have a compromise in its performance be it range, precision, noise, life, etc., which are posing as challenges in industrial operations.
The major implication of a less performing sensor is the quality of data it generates which is further used in decision making.
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?
Of late it is ‘Smart’ everything and sensors are not an exception. We are at the dawn of a new era of smart sensors. While normal sensors detect and send data for remote processing, smart sensors on the other hand consist of a sensor, a microprocessor and some kind of communication technology mostly wireless and have some computing embedded in them.
These smart sensors provide quality data in terms of less noise, more accuracy, and more energy saving but come with a cost impact than their non-smart peers.
As long as there is no focus on sense making from the sensor data mere sensing will not bring in any value addition. To attain sustainable and profitable business outcomes, maximising sensor data quality and value creation by utilising it, is the key. This is more applicable in the critical process industries where predictive and preventive maintenance and detection of abnormalities is the primary goal as part of asset condition monitoring and asset performance management.
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?
The need of the hour for implementing digital transformation is not just generating Exabytes of data and capturing it. It is about focusing on value creation from such a massive pile of data available with us, thanks to industrial automation and sensor technology. It all depends on the data quality (reliability, accuracy, precision and noise-free) from the sensor which is then pushed to a cloud infrastructure for generating recommendations or making correct business decisions.
The confluence of smart sensing with AI/ML will aid in performance improvement and dynamic decision making. Generating ‘good data’ will support easier feature extraction while building ML models and AI products.
The sky is the limit even for development of this sensor technology but it could be targeted towards sensing difficult to obtain data such as atomic/cell level data, human thoughts and emotions, infant and cognitive behavioural studies, etc.
It would be highly desirable that Electric vehicles transmit more data back to stations to enable new business models. What are the demands on sensors in moving vehicles?
How sustainable is an electric vehicle model when we need the energy generated by a fossil fuel to charge it before we take it for a ride each time? Is green energy really green?
More data is to be generated for the electric vehicles to reimagine the entire value chain for enabling new sustainable business models. The data shall be used in applications such as interval of electric charging outlets, condition monitoring, predictive and preventive measures, battery performance, asset performance and implementing road and vehicle safety measures as well.
What are the emerging trends in sensors that will further increase efficiency?
Recent advancements to sensors include biosensors, usage in drug and diagnostics monitoring systems, detecting/measuring invisible things, nano photonics, and spectral analysis. Applications in medicine, communication devices, automobiles, logistics and connected everything.
Leveraging edge computing for certain business needs such as anomaly detection and cloud computing for more in depth needs such as pattern formulation, building ML models, etc., are already in the pipeline but the OT & IT industries are yet to unleash themselves to their maximum potential in the convergence. As the transition to digital transformation accelerates, enhanced process automation would be the need of the hour and hopefully sensor technology would address this need by evolving at a faster pace than now in the not so very distant future of the 4th Industrial Revolution/Industry 4.0.
A Principal Oil & Gas Consultant and Digital Transformation Enthusiast, Harish G Kashyap, has more than 15 years of experience in the Oil & Gas domain, delivering multiple large scale, high budget capital intensive projects. He is passionate about thought leadership of emerging technologies and their convergence with the traditional business domains (IT & OT convergence). He can be reached via www.linkedin.com/in/harishgkashyap or by email firstname.lastname@example.org