5 Factory Uses for Sensors You Might Not Expect

by Gary Fain
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Sensors are some of the most remarkable electronic devices available. Some of their applications in factories and manufacturing are a little lesser known right now, even as Industry 4.0 continues its disruptive march. Let’s take a look at five of those applications now.

1. Asset Tracking, Order of Operations and Facility Security

Battery technology is everywhere in homes and factories already. However, the race is on to bring long-overdue improvements to familiar rechargeable battery technologies. At the consumer level, batteries power cars, phones and even homes. In the factory, they are a common sight wherever pallet trucks, reach trucks, order pickers and other heavy equipment see frequent use.

If a factory is turning out cars that have a range of color, material, powertrain and structural options, it makes good sense to load these variable parts onto trucks in the order they’ll be needed. Accomplishing this unlocks just-in-time manufacturing for that car company. Using RFID tags and sensors to scan them at both steps helps supplier and manufacturer get into sync with one another and speed the time it takes to turn a complete product. It also helps keep inventory requirements down.

The combination of mobile identifying tags and stationary sensors also helps keep your vehicles, lift trucks and other assets accounted for. Plus, assuming your facility provides employees with key cards or fobs, tags and readers automatically help you track traffic flow in and out of controlled or out-of-bounds areas.

Walmart provides a cautionary tale. In 2003, the retail giant began a “slap and chip” program to place RFID tags on all of their pallets and case packs. According to vendors, the program didn’t go anywhere because Walmart didn’t have a way to process the data being gathered.

Fast-forward a few years and now even medium-sized factories have much more advanced edge computing capabilities than they did when Walmart made its attempt, thanks to size reductions of printed circuit boards and other essential components, as well as improvements in their flexibility and durability.

2. Improve Risk Management and Insurance Oversight

There are lots of areas where companies may find themselves liable if something is not within tolerances or a product fault finds its way onto the market. Sensors let manufacturers of sensitive or fragile machinery or devices, such as complex machines or measuring equipment, protect themselves from a specific type of insurance risk: damage or miscalibration occurring in transit.

If a manufacturer wants to ensure its medical devices arrive at clinics, hospitals or other areas, they might package that equipment with a shock sensor that can record data if the shipping carton receives a blow that knocks the instrument out of calibration.

Risk is common across factory floors, too, which is why sensors provide a way for facility managers to receive notifications about “non-conforming events” — any incident that occurs outside of normal operating parameters and that might pose a risk to product flow, quality or general plant productivity. With sensors and non-conformance reports, manufacturers can dive into cause and effect and find problematic areas or processes more quickly.

3. Turn Products Into Services

It’s good enough to sell somebody a product outright, but it’s even better if you can turn that product into a service.

Manufacturers with one or more factories have a lot to gain by making their products better able to deliver a longer-term revenue stream. For instance, instead of selling a factory a conveyor belt or a CNC machine once, and maybe making some money on service calls, the equipment provider can turn them into services. With sensors delivering machine condition data in real-time even over distances, the provider can provide nearly perfect uptime for their machines in the field by sending out technicians to replace parts or perform maintenance tasks before something fails.

In this scenario, where a factory depends on equipment they don’t actually own, sensors provide an additional function: showing when each machine was powered on, and for how long. Both parties have assurances, therefore, that money’s only exchanging hands when the equipment is in use.

4. Reduce Wasted Materials

If you work with steel and somebody tells you they could help you retain 15% of the material, it’s probably thanks to sensors. By using stock materials more strategically and gathering information in real-time about the condition of all sitting inventory, factories can pick up a lot of savings they didn’t even know they were leaving on the table.

The ability to lean on sensors to pick up on trends in operational data extends to the use of energy, too. Sensors are an increasingly common sight wherever gas turbines are put to work in vehicles or industrial equipment. They help make fuel valve adjustments and other tweaks to ensure emissions stay below legal limits and no more fuel is used than is necessary.

5. Help Pursue Circular Economy

The idea behind the “circular economy” is to, as Philips puts it, “decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources and ecosystems by using those resources more effectively.” This pursuit has resulted in several goals for Philips and other companies with an interest in reducing their resource-usage footprints and contributions to global waste.

Manufacturers can now use sensors to discover how their products are used and serviced in the real world, to improve the resiliency of future products. This helps reuse products and materials more frequently, improves the likelihood of products being refurbished instead of discarded and may even help detect faulty products in the field before they fail.

In a recent survey of U.S. companies, ING found that a majority of them (62%) were planning for a more circular economy already, even if the definition of the term is somewhat fluid. This is the time to begin planning for a near-future where sensors are printed onto products as a matter of course, so maintenance specialists can determine product usage, material degradation and other performance metrics.

In some cases, sensors serve to identify which components within a used product are in a recoverable enough state to warrant resale or recovery for another purpose. They might reveal which elements see most frequent service or upgrades, like in Dell’s case, which resulted in more modular product designs.

Clearly, this is a fascinating time to pursue the adoption of sensors in a manufacturing environment. Given the potential material, energy and productivity savings, expect sensor technology to remain a popular area of investment for manufacturers looking to make their factories ever smarter.

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