Undoubtedly the biggest buzz in the world of transducers in general is the Internet of Things (IoT), which promises to catapult the once lowly sensor to the center of the next technological revolution. From personal health monitoring devices to smart sensors in appliances, sensors are playing a central role in this next wave of technological evolution.
Likewise, the industrial IoT promises to transform the industrial world. In a way, this has been happening for quite a while in the industrial space. Sensors are nothing new in industry and manufacturing. What is new, however, is the increased intelligence and networking possibilities of sensors, thanks largely to the march of increased computing power and the decrease in cost of sensor technology.
As a result, sensor manufacturers are taking advantage of technological advances as they design the next generation of sensors. For instance, Henry Menke, marketing manager for Object Detection Sensors and Linear Position Sensing & Measurement at Balluff, sees changes in networking preferences. “We are seeing a trend away from traditional linear position sensor interfaces like SSI, Start/Stop Digital Pulse, PWM, Analog and fieldbus toward modern industrial Ethernet interfaces,” he said. “In lower-end motion and simple positioning applications, analog is giving way to sensor-level interfaces like IO-Link that aggregate multiple sensor inputs onto the network through a master interface node. This is particularly advantageous when it comes to dealing with analog signals in a networked environment. Rather than analog signals being wired and input separately from the network, the sensors are connected digitally through the network. This enables full visibility on the control network and allows bi-directional communication for automatic or on-the-fly sensor parameterization.”
Some of the applications driving these changes are in semiconductor fabrication and medical lab automation by driving demand for position sensors with higher performance to cost ratios.
said Menke. “Often this means 1 to 10 μm resolution with position deviation of less than ±20 to ±50 μm. This is manifested as a trend to re-engineer existing automation systems from premium optical to more affordable magnetic linear encoders. Magnetic linear encoders are currently enjoying rapid advances in terms of resolution, speed, accuracy, robustness and application flexibility. This has prompted many cutting-edge designers to conclude that some optical positioning systems currently in use are now over-specified for the application when compared to modern magnetic encoder alternatives.”
Beyond technological changes themselves, companies are also seeing changes in manufacturing and distribution, especially when it comes to product availability and lead times. ”We have seen a rising level of customer anxiety regarding product availability and delivery time,” said Menke. “Design cycles are getting shorter, meaning that forecasting lead times and advance supplier notification periods are shrinking. It’s no longer sufficient to offer a product that meets the performance requirements within the application budget. The product must also be readily available—in quantity—within a short delivery window in order to meet project scheduling expectations. This applies to standard, off-the-shelf devices as well as semi-custom, built-to-order position sensors.”