The role of energy harvesting sensors in the factory of the future

Written by: Sophie Hand | Published:

Despite being named among the world’s smartest animals, most ground squirrels spend around nine months of the year in hibernation. Perhaps this is evidence that rest and recuperation provide the energy needed to work efficiently. Here Sophie Hand, UK country manager for global automation parts supplier EU Automation, explores how energy harvesting sensors could improve manufacturing plant operations.

Like squirrels, energy harvesting sensors only spend a small percentage of their lives awake. In fact, this type of sensor lays in a dormant state until it receives a trigger — hence its energy saving ability. But, why would plant managers favour these sensors over a traditional, wired network?

Installing a sensor network using copper wire, conduit and supporting infrastructure can be extremely cost prohibitive for manufacturers, especially if they are only just starting to incorporate smart technology in their factory. While there are wireless protocols for sensors, such as ZigBee, Bluetooth and 6LowPAN, which eliminate data communications wiring, the sensors still need to be powered by something. Often, manufacturers opt for batteries. However, OnWorld Research has predicted that battery change-out costs $1 billion per year. Clearly, the industry needs an alternative

Energy harvesting sensors operate by gathering certain types of energy, such as kinetic, solar and thermal power from a piece of machinery and using it to obtain electric power. As a result, these sensors require no batteries to acquire and send data.

Applying these devices in a machine-to-machine (M2M) sensor network could eliminate the need for grid-based power and primary batteries, creating a maintenance-free, battery-free and cable-free way of gathering and transmitting data in a manufacturing facility.

When activated, an energy harvesting sensor takes a measurement and transmits the data to a central system, before returning to its dormant state.

The sensors are already being used in a number of applications, particularly those that require long term monitoring of events associated with strain, temperature, currents, voltages and magnetic fields. However, they were traditionally designed to improve the monitoring of high-geared ball and linearly-actuated valves used in propulsion testing to predict valve life span.

Energy harvesting allows for the use of environment-friendly, clean technology that reduces energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. For plant managers, transitioning to sensors of this type could reduce energy bills and help meet energy efficiency standards, such as ISO 14001.

Plant managers can also retrofit these sensors to existing equipment on the factory floor. Effectively, these sensors operate as a standalone piece of equipment and can be attached to numerous pieces of machinery, from a valve actuator, to a motor.

This allows plant managers to receive data from the machine, typically related to performance, and use it to plan maintenance and identify breakdowns. As a result, the data allows plant managers to avoid unnecessary downtime.

In instances where equipment breakdowns occur, plant managers need fast access to replacement parts, which is where EU Automation can help. Partnering with an automation parts supplier like us means that you won’t be left out of operation while a replacement part is sourced, shipped and fitted.

Squirrels may be intelligent, but they can only communicate through scent marking and using their tail as a signalling device. Luckily, EU Automation speaks 50 languages across its four facilities worldwide, so we can communicate with you in a slightly more elegant fashion.


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