Innovations in computing hardware and software have made it easier than ever to collect minute details of manufacturing processes. Small, low-powered sensors can be embedded in almost any machine for data collection, and thanks to wireless technology, these devices can continuously and unobtrusively provide measurements of performance and environmental data. Analysis of this data offers vast opportunities for fine-tuning performance and process.
Sensors become more powerful and useful when partnered with microprocessors and networked. A single sensor is limited in the information it can provide, but a network of connected sensors paints a more comprehensive picture. The network becomes even more powerful when a historical record of sensed data is recorded and analyzed. The network then evolves from simply a means of alerting users to an event that has already occurred, to a way of analyzing and optimizing a system or environment.
A sensor network’s return on investment could be a reduction in unplanned downtime, enhanced workplace safety, or insight into a topic that could not have been explored without multiple points of data collection. But the user must know what data they want to collect, and how they are going to use that collected data.
Modern sensors are small enough to be deployed in hard-to-access, hard-to-maintain places, and a well-designed system can be powered by batteries alone for well over a year without maintenance. Sensors can be deployed to monitor one aspect of a process, and later expanded to add additional data points without disrupting the existing setup
A network of sensors is much more valuable than the sum of the parts. Modern sensor networks are evolving beyond simple monitoring to become the central mechanism for a continuous feedback-and-response ecosystem. The devices leverage existing hardware and infrastructure and have mechanisms for updates to allow the network to adapt to the conditions it is sensing.
What happens when the sensors in a network are spread across a large area that does not already have a wireless infrastructure in place? A mesh network pairs sensors with microcontroller nodes at the point of deployment. The nodes act as small computing platforms that establish communications routing among the various sensor packages in the installation. When a remotely located sensor needs to transmit a reading, the data is relayed through intermediate nodes until the information reaches a central collection point. In this way, each node within the mesh acts as a signal repeater for the other nodes.
This kind of intelligent routing is essential for a robust wireless sensor network. For optimal performance, the system must be able to evolve and respond to challenges. To achieve an effective level of adaptability, sensor placement and connectivity must be a concern during the installation of the network.
A more connected sensor network makes security a greater concern. Security should be considered between wireless nodes, and also between the nodes and the Internet if the network is connected. Communications among nodes must have security provisions and encryption at all layers of the platform. To reduce chances of signal interception, wireless sensor networks should also be isolated to localized intranets or connected to the public Internet.
The unification of low-cost, low-power sensors has made it possible to monitor just about anything from anywhere. Sensor density creates a challenging environment where the amount of data being collected can hinder analysis efforts, and evolving needs can quickly render the sensor network obsolete.
Careful planning and the combination of sensors and wirelessly enabled microcontrollers help to prevent these conditions by providing a platform for the new sensors, updates, and error corrections needed to keep a sensor network relevant.