Process Instrumentation Has Never Been More Timely—or Easy!

Ryan Spurr

In a world challenged by workforce shortages, resiliency risk, and lack of real-time workflow visibility, there has never been a more impactful time to enable business change and drive measurable outcomes. Automating non-valued added tasks, quality and regulatory compliance, and operational excellence through sensor technologies helps manufacturers augment these challenges, optimize their businesses, and support future top- and bottom-line growth.

The funny thing about sensors or instrumentation is that they are no more evident than in our personal lives. From thermostats to cameras to security to modern vehicles, sensors are everywhere. They improve every aspect of life, from optimizing home energy costs to reducing the severity of accidents and alerting us to critical situations. These enhancements free us to focus on more meaningful activities—like not adjusting the thermostat multiple times a day or turning off the sprinkler system when it’s raining outside. Who has time for all that? 

The same is true for business. By instrumenting business processes, we can increase process assurance, eliminate non-value-added activities, and leverage our high-value people assets to focus on more meaningful tasks. Sensors will soon become so pervasive that they will radically change not just key process points but become embedded in every activity across the supply chain. In fact, according to a recent study, 90% of IoT decision makers believe IoT is critical to their company’s continued success and strategically necessary for digitally transforming operations.1 By the end of 2021, it’s anticipated that sensor adoption will rise from 57% to 85% as the technology becomes accessible and viable for all manufacturers.2

What Are Sensors?

It’s an answer that is constantly evolving. Arguably anything can be a sensor in today’s modern and connected manufacturing world. The only real requirement is to collect meaningful data to augment process and people. These sensors are then connected and integrated with business systems, data platforms, and third parties to inform people across the value chain. Today, there are hundreds of variations, each sensing and measuring data about the environment, machines, vehicles, materials, finished goods, and people. 

Common examples of sensors include temperature, humidity, and vibration. These are heavily utilized across industries to monitor safety, quality, and equipment performance. And they are often heavily utilized to ensure compliance with regulations. Temperature sensors are even more complex than they first appear. Temperature may be sensed by air, on surfaces, or in liquids. The temperature ranges include standard environmental conditions, freezing temperatures, and high temperatures.

Because of their increased adoption, sensors now exist in all forms. Their application simply depends on the use case they aim to solve. Today’s sensors can measure pressure, air particulates and quality, voltage and amperage, liquids, luminescence, gases, and so much more. Devices come in commercial and industrial formats, and many are even designed to comply with standards to support specific industries, or safety requirements such as intrinsically safe situations where explosion risk due to spark exists.

Connecting and Securing Sensors

Like any machine, we must connect, integrate, and secure the technology to ensure it can bring the anticipated value to the organization. Unlike most ICS or legacy machines, sensors are not high bandwidth consuming technologies. 

For example, a typical temperature sensor might collect a data point every 10 milliseconds but only communicate every 5 minutes. The batching of collected data allows sensors to minimize the most energy consuming task of connecting and sharing data. This lightweight and industry standards-based approached allows modern sensors to last years on a single battery charge and offers a diverse range of connectivity and data transport options. In fact, sensors have a diverse array of options when it comes to connectivity.

Another example includes sensors where safety or monitoring is critical to factory operations. Such sensors are typically hard wired with power over ethernet (PoE). This eliminates the need for electrical outlets or batteries and ensure reliable power and connectivity. 

For non-wired sensors, multiple options exist—including 802.11, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Zigbee, cellular (public 4G/5G, private 5G), and LoRaWAN. Each of these standards have their benefits and limitations.

For example, BLE-based sensors have a limited range of roughly 15 meters, but they consume very little power, can connect to BLE-based beacons or mobile devices, and can even ride atop of next-generation IT and OT-owned wireless access points with BLE embedded antennas. BLE sensors are a rapidly popular option due to their simplicity and ease of deployment. They lower total infrastructure costs, and allows manufacturers to leverage existing IT infrastructure to connect any BLE-based sensor across the entire company, while eliminating data silos associated with the traditional bounded legacy infrastructure. Be on the lookout for even more technologies like this as BLE becomes a dominate connectivity option.

Depending on the type of sensors and connectivity options, the ease of provisioning and security control vary. Some solutions, such as those built atop of trusted network partners, can also integrate into zero-trust policies, leverage profiling, and meet stringent security requirements. Asset visibility and management—along with security—are important especially as new technologies, like sensors, increase the potential risk footprint for manufacturers.

Sensors Are Evolving

As with any technology, sensors continue to evolve in new and exciting ways. We are even seeing hybrid sensors combine to unlock new value into industries like food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, or sensitive technologies that require monitoring during transportation and storage. These devices not only streamline product identification but can ensure compliance, quality control, and chain of customer protection by including temperature, humidity, vibration, and tamper detection sensors on the passive RFID tags.  This can be especially beneficial in the pharmaceuticals industry where traceability requirements for products in storage or transit are mandated by the FDA.3 

Another form of sensor beyond convention is machine vision. Smart camera technology has moved past the traditional security use cases by combining edge intelligence, machine learning, and object identification. Cameras are outfitted with a range of technologies that allow them to record video while also sensing events, environmental conditions, and leveraging artificial intelligence in creative ways to collect data from existing investments. 

For example, by using smart cameras, a manufacturer can now quickly collect data from HMIs, digital displays, or non-digital dials and indicators. This creative approach eliminates the need for humans to manually collect data from legacy technologies and offers a simple approach to collect data from an “unconnectable” source. As a result, cameras are forging a new form of sensor by essentially replicating any task the human eye can discern.

Leverage Sensors to Transform Business

There are many investments a manufacturer can pursue in their journey to Industry 4.0. Most can be long and costly endeavors. What I love about modern sensors is they are simple, have a litany of application and proven use cases, and deliver quick ROI. Best of all—they are generally low cost and offer few entry barriers, making them great for both digital leaders and laggards. But the overall trend is that sensors play a key role in countering headwinds and offsetting workforce and process challenges. They deliver improved monitoring, quality, and visibility across all processes areas.

Regardless of your organization’s appetite for technology, sensors are just a part of the larger industrial transformation underway in manufacturing:

88% of manufacturers who have implemented sensor technologies already report a return on their financial investment.2  

One out of three company decision-makers decided to further invest in IoT adoption within the organization.1

Combining sensors, modern networks, and edge compute, the industry is already leveraging or accelerating industrial transformation (IX). With a diverse range of sensors, edge compute, connectivity, and security offerings, manufacturers can now tackle any number of process improvement initiatives that fuel automation to improve quality, drive throughput, and reduce costs.

To learn more about Connection’s Manufacturing Practice, or the sensor solutions highlighted in this blog, contact one of our manufacturing specialists today.

1 Microsoft, 2020, IOT Signals
2 HPE, 2017, Internet of Things, Today and Tomorrow 
3 FDA, 2003, Final Guidance Document FDA-2003-D-0143

Ryan Spurr is the Director of Manufacturing Strategy at Connection with 20+ years of experience in manufacturing, information technology, and portfolio leadership. He leads the Connection Manufacturing Practice, go-to-market strategy, client engagement, and advisory services focusing on operational technology (OT) and information technology that make manufacturers more digitally excellent.