Why smart sensors are the future for manufacturing

Manufacturers are turning to precision smart sensors to improve their productivity and profitability. As the manufacturing industry shifts gear, Thermo Fisher’s Michael Barth explains why engineers are adapting too.

By being open-minded to changing technology, Australian manufacturers are laying the foundations for a brighter future for the industry, according to a senior consultant of sensor technology.

Michael Barth, test and measurement portfolio manager from Thermo Fisher Scientific, insists this transition is already happening and that the growth of sensor innovation is providing the next step for automation.

This isn’t a coincidence in his eyes. As a smaller workforce takes on higher-spec projects across manufacturing, defence and aerospace, connecting industrial customers to supplier partners with tailored smart sensor technologies.

“We have a wide range of sensor solutions from world leading supply partners who we represent,” Barth told Manufacturers’ Monthly. “We bring years of expertise to work with clients on demanding industrial applications. That is really the ultimate driver: to provide the most suitable solutions for our customers.

“We have a range of technologies that offer our customers precision knowledge of their processes and allow people – and also machines – to make better decisions on the factory floor.”

One of the major problems for manufacturers over recent years has been the industry’s exodus to Asia, where lower-cost manufacturing plants are thriving on cheap labour and quick turnaround.

By moving into the digital age so to speak, Barth explains why it is the role of digital entrepreneurs to attempt to move that tyranny of distance back into Australia’s favour.

“When you look at Germany, for example, the idea that we can’t compete in Australia doesn’t hold water,” Barth continued.

“Germany is a powerhouse of manufacturing and yet you wouldn’t think their living standards and the cost to produce there are that different from Australia. If they can do it, then surely Australia can too.

“I suspect that has a lot to do with our willingness to automate processes and improve our efficiencies. We certainly have all the resources in Australia to do a lot of manufacturing, so perhaps we can start exporting value-add rather than so much of our raw materials.”

At Thermo Fisher, they have kept up to date with standards in the industry with the various control and communication technologies out there.

“We are keeping up with the times and making sure to supply customers the products meeting industry automation requirements,” Barth said.

“Some manufacturers stick with the ‘tried and tested’ sensors. Alternatively they could get the other end of the scale with companies like MTS sensors, which is offering real time data communication protocols that enable the digital manufacturing revolution.

“It is important that sensor manufacturers are keeping up with current industry technology trends to keep themselves relevant and to ensure their business has access to the equipment and sensors to meet their application needs.”

By matching customers’ application needs to the right solution, Thermo Fisher is not only in the business of technology production but also has a hand in shaping the future of the manufacturing landscape.

“Anyone can sell out of a catalogue whereas these days most customers are looking to us to solve a problem,” Barth continued.

“They can’t be an expert in everything, so what we can offer is our knowledge of the sensor and matching that with the application needs to ensure that the customer has a solution that is going to perform and is a benefit to them.”

In the magnetostrictive space, MTS has been a frontrunner for many years.  Known for introducing its magnetostrictive sensors to position measurement, it has since patented a number of key advancements in the technology.

An example of its diversity is apparent today. For example, something like a ‘signal-noise ratio’ – where sensors can be affected by shock – does not necessarily aid the average user, but can make all the difference in an industry where shock and vibration are common factors.

Around the issue of application redundancy, where critical control applications – whether they are nuclear, safety or other critical process – are imperative – MTS’ new T-series sensors also offer redundant output and sensing in one package.

These are only a few examples of how the industry is adapting to common, and even future trends, which, Barth explains, is the reason for the changing roles of sensor engineers.

“I have been involved in MTS products for more than 17 years and have seen them move from very basic technology – particularly the conditioning electronics – to a point now where you can offer configurability and interface to a computer and program,” Barth said.

“At Thermo Fisher, we tend to touch on a very broad customer base and, whatever the applications are, being able to utilise experience from one industry can often translate into knowledge that benefits other sectors.”