Sensors: Did We Say Cheap? Not Exactly.

Oct. 28, 2016
At Emerson Exchange, executives explain that what we perhaps too often refer to as ‘cheap’ sensors are not actually that inexpensive. They can’t be, given the environments they’re going into.

One of the things we like to talk about as a key enabler to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is the prevalence of cheap sensors. IIoT wouldn’t be IIoT, after all, without the advances made in lower-cost sensors. But if you think these sensors are actually “cheap,” well…not so much.

The general idea is that it’s much more cost-effective these days to canvass your plant with sensors so that you can gather data from every corner of your operations. But don’t take that to mean you can just plaster them willy-nilly, without regard for cost.

“Can we indiscriminately deploy thousands of sensors around the plant? No,” said Jonas Berge, director of applied technology for Emerson Automation Solutions. “Every sensor has to be justified.”

At an IIoT roundtable discussion this week at the Emerson Global Users Exchange in Austin, one question came from an integrator who clearly knows this all too well: “Does Emerson have a plan to make more economical sensors so we can more broadly cover our customers’ plants?”

Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer for Emerson Automation Solutions, is pretty unequivocal on this point. Not really. They’ve tackled the biggest cost, he said, which is with connectivity. That’s why when Emerson execs talk about pervasive sensing, they’re talking primarily about wireless sensors, which are much easier and more cost-effective to install in more places throughout the plant.

But Zornio also wants to make clear that they are not talking about “cheap lick-and-stick” sensors, which would not be suited to the process manufacturing space. “We make sensors for hazardous environments,” he said, explaining that much of the cost of the sensors come from the packaging designed to protect the technology rather than the actual electronics inside. “We’re trying, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get to the price of Botnet Barbie. But that’s front of our mind all the time.”

(The point was made earlier in the discussion about sensors being so inexpensive that they can be put into Barbie dolls and other toys with artificial intelligence. But such consumer novelties do not require nearly the precision and protection that industrial devices require.)

Zornio was actually lamenting this point in a less public forum, sitting next to me at the media dinner Monday night. The media does perhaps have a tendency to overuse that word “cheap” when talking about sensors in industrial automation. Something to keep in mind, he said, was that a huge point of these sensors is to gather data about devices that could become a maintenance issue if left unchecked. So why would you want to install sensors that create even more maintenance issues?

“The last thing you want to do is install a bunch of sensors that become a maintenance problem,” he said during the roundtable discussion. “You will get sick of dealing with sensors that fail all the time.”

Cheap? No, of course not. Free? OK.

But just because Emerson’s sensors aren’t lick-and-stick cheap doesn’t mean they aren’t giveaways.

Denka Singapore is a prime example of a manufacturer that paid nothing for all the hardware installed throughout its chemical plant on Singapore’s Jurong Island to monitor steam traps. Emerson installed Rosemount 708 wireless acoustic transmitters on 148 critical steam traps, sending noise and temperature data through a mobile network to a Microsoft Azure cloud server. SteamLogic analytics software automatically analyzes the data and generates alerts.

With no upfront capital expenditure, Denka instead pays monthly subscription fees for Emerson to monitor the data and provide actionable reports about the plant’s steam traps, which maintenance personnel can follow up on. With this continuous monitoring, Denka has not only been able to eliminate periodic surveys by workers and annual inspections by contractors, but has also seen 7 percent steam savings, which has a huge impact on energy costs.

“We very much think that’s a good model going forward,” Zornio said.

In fact, Emerson Connected Services were a significant part of the company’s message at Emerson Exchange this week. Offerings currently include Control Valve Connected Services, Steam Trap Connected Services, DeltaV System Health Connected Services and Machinery Connected Services.

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