Process Instrumentation Futures

Nov. 19, 2013
Used to measure, display, record and control process variables such as pressure, temperature, flow, level, load, speed, distance or angle, process instruments can be as simple as direct reading thermometers or as complex as multi-variable process analyzers and controls.

Though little has changed with instrumentation for several years, increased functionality will bring major productivity advances in the coming decade.

Advances include instant access to data, displays and intelligence anywhere on the network, improved network communications, intrinsic safety and more. Progress is impacted, in particular, by wireless technology, mobile devices and industrial Internet.

Most process sensors have not and will not change in the foreseeable future. The most measured process variable is temperature, followed by pressure flow and many others. Thermocouples are the most common temperature sensors, with millivolt signals that need to be boosted in most practical applications. Process instruments also encompass controls to operate actuators such as heaters, solenoids, valves, regulators, relays or circuit breakers.

For sending low-level signals without any degradation over any distance, sensors are typically connected to transmitters that produce output signals, usually in the form of a current signal, 4-20 mA. There are many other output options, including voltage and frequency, which are converted for use with networks such as fieldbus and Ethernet for display or control in PLCs, DCS or SCADA systems.

There’s an enormous installed base of 4-20 mA transmitters, some of which have been retrofitted for use with digital protocols such as HART, to connect with configuration, test, calibration, diagnostics devices and portable computers. Many users have yet to realize that HART technology’s greatest value comes from real-time asset management and control systems.

Today, one can connect a laptop or wireless mobile device to gain instant access to all the data, displays and intelligence that resides anywhere on the network. This capability, in combination with the self-tuning, self-diagnosing and optimizing features of modern process control, makes both startup activity and operational routines much easier and more efficient.

Users demand better performance, more uptime and easier maintenance. Smart instruments meet these demands and more. The payoff is less complexity, better performance and reduced costs throughout the balance of the process control and information system lifecycles.

There are several specialized branches of process instrumentation for extreme environments such as petrochemical, mining and gas turbine engine environments. When used in hazardous environments, process instrumentation needs to be intrinsically safe. There has been continuous change in the detail of the methods of safety and explosion protection applied to instrumentation over the past half century, and techniques will likely continue to evolve, but only gradually because of the conservative approach to safety-related matters.

Evolution of process instrumentation will accelerate when international standards have been established for networked communications. However, suppliers keep favoring their own standards for competitive differentiation, and that will continue.

Growth inflection points
The future of process instrumentation will be impacted in three primary technology areas: wireless, mobile devices and the industrial Internet.

As the industrial Internet expands to more measurements in process environments, this will have significant impact on process measurements and related instrumentation. Information management and Big Data will spread throughout the process instrumentation environment.

Increasing numbers of sensor measurement instruments will be designed to be cheaper, smaller, multi-function and Internet-connected, with diagnostics, status display, configuration and calibration via standard connection to mobile phones or tablets.

Mobile devices will spread everywhere. The operator will have an extended role, encompassing information and asset management, with engineering skills increasing rapidly because of new abilities to simply look up any information that’s required.

Wired systems keep getting more expensive and difficult to install, while wireless monitoring continues to get cheaper and easier. There are huge varieties and numbers of processes that need to be monitored, many too expensive to be hard-wired. With wireless instrumentation, installation costs are significantly lower. In some applications, return on investment for wireless installations is measured in days and weeks—not years.

After several years of nothing more than design tweaks, process instruments will surge ahead, offering a lot more functionality for major productivity advances in the next decade.

>> Jim Pinto is a technology futurist, international speaker and automation industry commentator. You can email him at [email protected] or review his prognostications and predictions on his website: