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Smart sensors are changing the world for manufacturers

A proliferation of inexpensive and smart sensors is enabling a new age of visibility inside manufacturing plants and throughout the supply chain.

The most visible and obvious elements of the Internet of Things (IoT) and its industrial version, the IIoT, are...

smart sensors -- the devices of every imaginable description that come with the ability to connect to the Internet and exchange information. It is these smart sensors and their data streams that give rise to big data (along with video, text and social media) and the associated challenges to traditional IT systems. There is so much data, and such a variety of data, that new software and systems are required to deal with it.

The supply chain is mostly about inventory and transportation -- goods in transit or in storage. The two primary dimensions of supply chain big data, then, are what and where. What items in what quantities are being tracked, and where are they at the present moment? Depending on the specificity of the identification, individual items might be tracked or the identification may be limited to certain quantities (case, pallet, container load) of an item. Additional information pertaining to the item or quantity can be linked to its identity (lot number, date of manufacture, quality measurements). Similarly, location-specific data also can be captured, including parameters such as temperature and humidity.

Supply chain sensors fall into three categories

Sensors for supply chain tracking fall into three general categories: identification, location and environmental. The state of the art in identification is radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that can be placed in or on items, cases, pallets or containers that self-identify when passing through a reader's electronic field. Although RFID is gaining traction in the supply chain, the majority of auto ID is still done with bar codes, an established technology that is inexpensive, highly reliable and relatively simple to implement and use.

Identifying the items also establishes the location, for scanners or readers with fixed locations, as in a plant or warehouse. Once the goods are on the move, tracking the vehicle (with its known contents) relies on location-aware technologies, primarily global positioning system (GPS) receivers. These devices, once they have established their own location, can upload the location data through the Internet where it is matched to the identity of the vehicle or container contents. Supply chain tracking devices often combine the "what" and the "where" whether through its fixed location or GPS.

Picture a case of product, pulled from warehouse inventory (bar code scan) and placed on a pallet with other items, then shrink-wrapped together. The pallet has a bar code "license plate" which, when scanned, relates the contents to the pallet ID. An RFID tag is also attached to the pallet. When the pallet is moved into the waiting trailer, the RFID reader adds the pallet and its contents to the truckload manifest. On the road, the truck's GPS sensor records the load's movement to its destination. The pallet's RFID tag tracks the pallet's movement into a warehouse.

GE plant a poster child for use of smart sensors

Some goods and shipments must be monitored for handling and environmental conditions -- foods and some pharmaceuticals must be kept within a certain temperature range, for example, and some shipments of delicate articles might be monitored for rough handling. For these purposes, connected sensors of many types and capabilities are now available. Some companies are even using consumer devices like webcams as inexpensive and readily available connected sensors to supplement monitoring throughout the supply chain.

Environmental measurement sensors are particularly useful inside the plant and warehouse to keep an eye on conditions, log the data for historical record and quality management, and as triggers for alarms and process management.

The poster child for this new Industrial Internet of Things is GE's new (2012) $170 million battery plant in Schenectady, New York. The factory, making advanced sodium-nickel batteries, has more than 10,000 smart sensors monitoring things like which batches of powder are being used to form the ceramics at the heart of the batteries, how high a temperature is being used to bake them, how much energy is required to make each battery, and even the local air pressure. On the plant floor, employees with iPads can pull up all the data from Wi-Fi nodes set up around the factory.

Smart sensors enable new age of plant visibility

Temperature and humidity can affect batteries, so the factory has more than 100 air pressure, humidity and temperature sensors. The system monitors inside and outside conditions and controls air conditioning and ventilation vents to maintain optimum conditions for high product quality and yield. Every part is tracked with serial numbers and bar codes. Managers can easily see how much energy it took to make a specific battery part, for example, or study a day's production with full data on all conditions, equipment used, operator identification and more.

This proliferation of relatively inexpensive and very smart sensors and devices is enabling a new age of visibility inside the plant and throughout the supply chain. As technologies and applications evolve to be able to exploit this windfall of big data, companies will have the means to more closely control inventory, delivery lead times and product quality to a level never before possible.

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