Smart sensors and manufacturing

Bruce Leith

Blog by: Bruce Leith - 14 / Nov / 2018

Sensors are old news. They have been used in a wide variety of settings and sectors – including manufacturing – for decades. Very simply, they sense things – temperature perhaps, or noise levels, or air quality, or the number of times a particular action has been repeated. Then, they convert those qualities into electrical signals so that they can be collected and recorded by machines.

But smartsensors – these are rather newer. And they are having a transformative effect on manufacturing operations.

What is a smart sensor?

A smart sensor is one that is not only able to collect information but is also able to perform a function or deliver an instruction based on information; one definition is ‘a sensor that takes some predefined action when it senses the appropriate input’. 

This means that to make a traditional sensor ‘smart’, it needs to incorporate some kind of communication capability; in other words, it needs to be connected. It also needs to incorporate some kind of basic processing power in order to execute an instruction.

To be useful, smart sensors need to be physically small enough to ‘disappear’ into the environment in which they are deployed, and include wireless rather than wired connectivity, since the latter is rarely possible.

Why and how are they transformative?

Smart sensors are the engines of the IoT in industrial settings – the IIoT. They enable manufacturing organisations to collect previously untapped data and – crucially – to analyse it en masse and use it to inform tangible business actions. In turn, those actions can drive business efficiencies, save time and resource, and even enhance product innovation.

They can be deployed in various areas within manufacturing operations. First, they can be used throughout the production line, generating a so-called ‘smart factory’. When certain conditions are met, they can instruct manufacturing equipment to stop, start, change speed or function, and therefore automate previously manual processes. Alternatively, they can be used to track the condition of manufacturing equipment, introducing predictive maintenance before small faults become disruptive problems.

Second, they can be deployed within warehouses. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags can, for example, be used to track the location of particular products and therefore aid with picking and logistics. Environmental smart sensors can track conditions such as temperature and humidity, and therefore aid with quality control. 

Third, they can be embedded into products themselves. How this works in practice depends, of course, on the business of the manufacturing operation in question, but essentially means that the manufacturer can gather invaluable data from products as they are being used. Think of analytics on the performance of car engines, for example, which can then lead to product enhancement and innovation. Smart products can also have a positive impact on supply chain logistics, enabling manufacturers to track where their products are on the delivery cycle and the condition they are in.

Further benefits of deploying smart sensors can include their role in tracking and maintaining conditions required for regulatory compliance frameworks including health and safety demands. Or they can be used to drive energy efficiency across the factory floor and in warehouses – important both for the business bottom line and environmental impact.

Smart sensors, then, are small objects with a huge impact. They can be deployed in multiple areas within manufacturing operations and drive everything from immediate process improvements to long-term efficiencies and new developments. Are you ready to deploy them in your organisation?

Topics: IoT, IIoT, sensors, smart manufacturing

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