Sensors are Fundamental to Industrial IoT

  • November 17, 2014
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) in many respects is the progression of distributed computing. IIoT relies on sound data to be effective. The fundamental components of an automation (or other) system are sensors; they are the “eyes, ears, and fingers” of any system. If the concepts of IIoT are to succeed, we need more effective, powerful sensors. The leaders in the Industrial Internet of Things race may well be innovators in the development of new sensor technologies.

More computing power is being distributed upward into the cloud and also down to end devices. This architectural shift is referred to as pushing intelligence to “the edge.” The importance of sensors and powerful edge devices was emphasized again at the 2014 Internet of Things World Forum (IoTWF) in Chicago with the introduction of a seven-level IoT Reference Model. The model was developed by the IoTWF Steering Committee, which includes Intel, Rockwell Automation and Schneider-Electric. The lowest level of the reference model consists of physical devices and controllers, and includes sensors, devices, machines and other intelligent nodes.

IoT Reference Model

At the IoTFW, representatives from Intel, Rockwell Automation and other suppliers talked about real-life deployments of IoT solutions in government and private sectors. Wim Elfrink, Executive Vice President for Industry Solutions and Chief Globalization Officer at Cisco, said, “The Internet of Everything is a global industry phenomenon where the intelligent networked connections between people, process, data and things make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before.” Read more about Elfrink’s comments at IoTWF at this blog post.

Sensor Innovation

Industrial and process systems rely on sensors for reliable and accurate data in all aspects of control and automation. There is a new wave of innovative sensors based on the application of technology to improve performance. Here are a couple of examples of new innovative sensors:

Level Measurement - Solids & Powders

Real-time measurement of level, volume and mass of bulk solids and powders in large vessels, bins and silos has been a real challenge for owners/operators. Accurate measurements are required for inventory management and process control. Very often owners/operators are required to make these measurements manually. Emerson’s Rosemount group solved this problem with the 5708 Series 3D Solids Scanners. The 5708 instrument uses acoustic waves and high speed embedded processors to provide accurate measurement information.

Previously, laser-based technologies could require several hours to take measurements and require the process to be shut down. In contrast, the 5708 scanners provide continuous volume measurements that are representative of the material’s surface. They can measure practically any kind of material, including difficult-to-measure fly ash and low-dielectric materials that would challenge other technologies. The scanner maps the uneven surface typically found in solids applications and can provide the minimum and maximum level, the total volume, and a 3D visualization of the surface.

Temperature Monitoring - Long Distances or Wide Areas

Temperature measurement and monitoring over long distances or across wide areas is another real challenge. Yokogawa solved this problem with the DTSX3000, which applies fiber optic measurement technology. Conventional techniques rely on the use of multiple surveillance cameras, thermocouples, resistance temperature detectors or other distributed temperature sensors. These techniques are cumbersome and difficult to install and maintain. The innovative Yokogawa solution has a one-meter spatial resolution that can measure the temperature along fiber-optic cables up to 50 km in length. Applications include:

  • monitoring temperatures in unconventional oil and gas wells

  • detecting leaks of high or low temperature liquids and gasses from pipelines or tanks

  • detecting abnormal heat buildup in coal and wood chip conveyors

  • monitoring conductor temperatures in power lines

What is on the horizon?

There are number of interesting developments that provide a glimpse into the near future of sensing. For example, an Israeli firm has developed the world’s first nanotech-based “electronic nose” to sniff out security threats like bombs, biological warfare agents, and toxic liquids. The system was designed by Tel Aviv-based Tracense Systems and can detect even the smallest amounts of material. “Our ‘laboratory-on-a-chip’ nano-sensors can detect a wide range of chemical threats, such as explosives, chemical and biological warfare agents, in air, solid and liquid samples, at extremely low concentrations, unmatched by existing technologies,” said Dr. Ricardo Osiroff, the company’s CEO. “Our system meets and beats the capabilities of sniffing dogs and other animals.” Think about the possibilities for manufacturing and process improvements with better sensing options.

Measurement Fundamental for Success

Innovations in measurement technologies are required to fully leverage the Internet of Things concepts. More powerful, effective sensors will provide the big data for analytics that will, in turn, improve manufacturing processes.

Simply adding software on top of automation systems will only add a limited amount of new value and functionality. Sensors that leverage embedded computing will create refined, intelligent real-time information at the data source and then communicate that information back to the supervisory or control system. The increased embedded computing at the sensor level will become more important as you further implement industrial wireless and cellular communications infrastructures at your facilities.

Share Your Thoughts

What new sensors are on your wish list? Share your wishes and thoughts on new sensor technology in our LinkedIn group discussion.

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