Wireless Sensors: The Data You Want

The Mere Mention of a System's Data-Gathering Capabilities Can Turn Machine Operators Running the Other Way

Aaron HandBy Aaron Hand, Managing Editor

In our lives and in our jobs, we are inundated with data. At Rockwell Automation's Global Machine Builder Forum last month, Jeff Reed, vice president of Cisco's Unified Access Business Unit, warned of the "zettaflood" of data—not gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes or even exabytes, but zettabytes. It's no wonder, then, that the mere mention of a system's data-gathering capabilities can turn machine operators running the other way.

"People are inundated with data now," agrees Todd Hanson, director of wireless solutions for Honeywell Sensing and Control (www.honeywell.com/sensing). "So we get customers that say, ‘Listen, I get enough data. The last thing I want is more data.' The flip side of that is that they want more data. They need higher productivity; they need more uptime. To get that, they need sensored data."

Many industries are looking to enable more predictive rather than reactive manufacturing, which requires the necessary data from a variety of sensors throughout a plant. Dealing with this dichotomy involves not only better ways to assimilate all the data, but also ways to give users the data they need without overloading them. "To get more equipment health monitoring or predictive maintenance, they want snippets of data," Hanson says. "They want actionable data."

People are inundated with data now. The flip side of that is that they want more data. They need higher productivity; they need more uptime.

Wireless sensors are a natural fit for actionable data because they can be easily retrofitted into an existing wired infrastructure to get just the data manufacturers are looking for. "A plant might already have wired sensors, but it may not have sensors that are located at the bearing or at the compressor pump or wherever they want to do predictive maintenance," Hanson says. "It can be cost-prohibitive to run wires to get that data."

In some environments, wired sensors just aren't practical, and yet there's a growing need for data points there as well. Waukesha Machine & Tool (www.wmtcinc.com) in Waukesha, Wis., makes workholding assemblies for CNC applications, where constantly moving pallets jogging against each other is too great a demand for wired systems. "Our customers require a wireless pressure monitoring system because of the multiple pallets they run in one machine at any given time," says Kyle Spuhler, designer for Waukesha Machine & Tool.

With wired systems, they just couldn't monitor this application, notes Jim Stawitzky, manager of application engineering for Electrochem Solutions (www.electrochemsolutions.com), which provides the wireless CNC solution for Waukesha, as well as other applications. "If something's in motion, wire is going to fail," he says.

But wireless sensors have even enabled lights-out manufacturing for CNC machining. "If the sensor detects a pressure loss during manufacturing, it will put the machine into an emergency stop and shuttle that fixture out of the machine and bring another fixture/part in for manufacturing," Spuhler explains. "It is also set up to determine if a fixture has a pressure loss before manufacturing, and if so, it will skip that part for manufacturing and move to the next."

One area where wireless sensors still can make strides, Stawitzky says, is in battery life. However, it typically has not been a hurdle, with battery replacement cycled in with scheduled maintenance.

And the fact that they have limited battery power available means that wireless sensors are an inherently good fit for gathering samples of data between resting periods. "If they're only wanting snippets of information or packets of data at a preconceived interval, this is what it does," Hanson says.

"Really, customers only need data when things are changing or in process," Stawitzky adds. "On a 127-pallet system, you can get less than 1% of the data if you look at just the pallet that's being machined."

For a machine builder, wireless sensors can enable the kind of flexibility that many customers need today. "For an equipment supplier, the challenge is where do I put that sensor to pull the data the customer may want," Hanson says. "They'll do their wiring and I/O layout on the machine, get approval from the customer, but once they deliver and go to commission, something's always wrong."

A wireless sensor can be dropped in quickly and easily. "They simply take the data from that device, tie it in to the overall controller if they want or even as a standalone," Hanson explains.

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