A Sprinkling of Smart Dust

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

6-18-2015 12-53-22 PM

The “Internet of Things” allows industrial companies to tune or monitor equipment and processes with sensors. But how can these be best positioned and remain connected? One solution is to use smart dust, deployed in oil refineries, industrial process automation, breweries, waste-water treatment and elsewhere.

Smart dust was conceived in the mid 1990s by Kristofer S.J. Pister, now professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He wanted to  create tiny, diffuse wireless sensors that could be used for product tracking, temperature monitors, defense surveillance and other such applications.

By 2001, Dr. Pister’s team had developed an autonomous sensor the size of a grain of rice, containing five solar power supplies. “It was completely useless for anybody trying to do anything practical,” he says.

But with growing industry interest in smart dust, he founded a company, Dust Networks (acquired later by Linear Technology), to work on possible industrial applications.

When we got out of the university setting, we learned that size wasn’t particularly important, but power and reliability are,” Dr. Pister says.

The sensors had to be so efficient that their batteries would be able to last a decade, and communications technology had to function in harsh industrial conditions.

“We found that as we made these things better, the package gets smaller,” Dr. Pister says. The Dust sensors are now about the size of a sugar cube—too big to inhale, as some had feared—and are fixed in precise spots, so  “they aren’t thrown willy-nilly in the breeze,” he notes. “They aren’t going to wander.”

The sensing work itself—detection and measurement of temperature, flow rates, vibrations etc.—doesn’t require much power, but communicating it does. As a result, Dr. Pister’s team focuses on extremely low-power radios, turning them on only at the right time (down to the microsecond) either on a schedule or when the sensors have information to report.

To further save energy and improve reliability, the sensors are wirelessly connected in a mesh for efficient batch networking, communicating among one another to send data in short hops that don’t require much energy.

“The n6-18-2015 12-59-54 PMetworking aspect is similar to what goes on in the Internet,” Dr. Pister says. “It’s [about] how to build a reliable network when individual paths may be unreliable. We had to come up with different optimum solutions than what people are used to in radio.”

Typically, a sensor system has many low-power transmitters and one really good receiver, in what is called a “star-connected network.” However, in an industrial setting, the physics of a star network doesn’t work well. “The nature of radio frequency propagation and thermal noise in receivers mean there is some tradeoff,” Dr. Pister says. “If anything changes in the environment, it interferes.”

Sound travels like ripples when a stone is dropped into a pond, he says. When a ripple hits a wall, it reflects back and makes patterns. “If you’re a radio, you don’t want those patterns. You get destructive interference,” Dr. Pister explains. Industrial settings are full of such radio-reflecting walls.

That’s where the mesh really shines,” Dr. Pister says. You don’t need any one particular length between devices. Everybody can talk to everybody as long as [a] path is available. Packets [of data] keep going through, no matter what happens in the environment.”

The technology continues to improve and new applications continue to arise. “It’s not out of the question that 10 years from now there’s a whole new deployment,” he says. “The interesting thing, especially in the industrial process space, is that standards tend to last a long time.”

The first Dust sensors, deployed in 2007, are still working with their original batteries. While new generations may use less power, they operate with the same protocol, so companies don’t have to replace older models when a new one comes out. Linear Technology continues to sell products launched 30 years ago.

The quest to reduce size and energy use continues. One research focus is “energy scavenging,” whereby sensors can be powered by vibrations from the equipment they’re monitoring, or by differences in ambient temperature. “It’s not science fiction,” Dr. Pister says. “We have customers who integrated our wireless sensors that are running off solar power or temperature differences in a refinery. It’s part of the future of infinite-life products.”

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Sustainability Series Case Study Snapshot: Industrial Equipment-Food for thought

By Christina

We need to double our food production by 2050 if we are to satisfy requirements on a global scale.” – Dr. Hermann Garbers, former Executive Vice President Technology and Quality, CLAAS.

Agriculture produces food worth $1.3 trillion each year, yet it also uses 95% of the world’s water withdrawal and 2% of the world’s energy (along with forestry).  With the world’s population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, sustainable food production is a growing priority among governments, scientists and business.

It is also one of the key trends in the industrial equipment industry.  Farmers look to agricultural equipment that helps effectively use water and energy resources for a greater output with less input, such as energy or fertilizer.

CLAAS machinery
 

What happens locally has the potential to impact globally, which is why, as part of our Expo Milano 2015 “Sustainability Series,” we’re featuring CLAAS, an agricultural equipment manufacturer headquartered in Germany.  With over 11,000 employees and nearly €4 billion in revenues, their combines, forage harvesters, balers, tractors and field harvesting machinery are used by farmers worldwide.

CLAAS machinery in actionCLAAS adopted our solutions to help provide farmers with this optimized machinery.  Specifically, this involved providing the company’s development and production sites around the world with access to a unique source of product information for all of a product’s virtually working parts.   Designers can digitally store and test their designs, and mechanical, electrical and hydraulics engineers can collaborate to make any necessary adjustments in a digital environment.  All of this takes place before any design is finalized and before any prototype is created, meaning less waste and fewer errors during production.  Also, stored and managed design data for every machine can easily be accessed in order to upgrade equipment having long lifecycles with the latest technology, to build more intelligent machines.

When you look at the last 20 to 30 years, technological advances in machinery were linked to size and horsepower.  Today the focus is more on intelligent, energy efficient machines that accomplish more while keeping operational costs to a minimum. It is these machines that have the preference of farmers who speak less about machine power or productivity and more about resource efficiency,” added Garbers.

Click here for the full case study.

Are your Manufacturing Processes at Maximum Efficiency?

By Diana

Can you answer YES to these questions…?

  • Do you manage to produce more and faster without increasing the risk of error in your quotations and delivery? Manufacturing process
  • Do you capitalize on your knowledge and best practices and reuse existing elements?
  • Do you have traceability throughout the product’s development process from start to finish?
  • Can you provide your customers with tailored machines that meet their specific needs?
  • Are you able to work and fully cooperate with all your stakeholders around the world on the same project?

If you’ve answered YES to all these questions, your manufacturing process is perfect and you have nothing to do here! Why not share your best practices with us?

However, If you’ve hesitated before answering or even answered no to some questions, you should probably keep reading.

In order to transform your company into a more efficient manufacturing organization and say YES to all questions above, there are a few things you need to know:

The 4th Industrial Revolution

In the age of the 4th Industrial Revolution, a new way of thinking from design to manufacturing is impacting industrial equipment companies.

 

The 4th Industrial Revolution is all about Social, Smart and Flexible production with high value added services.

No need to worry, all this is new, so you haven’t missed anything!

However if you’ve responded YES to some of the questions, then maybe your company is using an Engineered-To-Order (ETO) approach, which is costly and complex. There are lots of solutions to improve and optimize this ETO process.

Here are some key points you may not want to miss…

  • Transform your product architecture into a modular one
  • Develop a strategy to reuse items and best practices
  • Empower all disciplines of the company to work together at the same time on the same project

Still not convinced? Find out more about improving your manufacturing processes,
in our free on-demand webinar here.



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