Fashions in sensor technology

I confess it was 50 years ago when I started looking at new technology for sensors. Back then, colleagues and I updated the old WW2 mine detector, using really low frequency (i.e. 1 kHz) magnetic waves to discriminate between ferrous and non-ferrous items, and assess the size and range of the target by the signal phase measurement. Here the electronics used ‘modern’ operational amplifiers, on a ‘chip’.

The 1980s

Ten years on, in the ’80s, the technology coming into vogue was ultrasonics, replacing float systems to make liquid level switches, and then, still using analog electronics, the first Doppler ultrasonic flowmeter appeared. With the availability of digital microprocessor circuitry, timed pulses transmitted through the air down to the surface of a liquid led to non-contact liquid level measurement, and major success in the automation of sewage sump pumping systems. (The success lasted maybe 30 years, as when the mobile phone business created low cost microwave components, similar systems based on radar began to take over in this market.)

The next leap forwards in the mid-’80s was the time-of-flight ultrasonic flowmeter – actually achieved with discrete digital circuitry, which was faster than the available microprocessors. The technology was originally developed at Harwell, for measuring liquid sodium flows in nuclear reactors, but these flowmeters found major application in monitoring clean water flows, primarily in water distribution mains. Over the next 25 years the technique was picked up by commercial interests, and continually refined, introducing clamp-on sensor systems, and adapting the technique for gas flows as well. Even domestic gas meters were introduced using the same principle. Eventually the microprocessor speed became fast enough to achieve the flow measurement accuracy needed – using multiple sound paths – for the fiscal measurement of oil flows, which is now one of the major applications, along with similar gas flow measurement tasks.

Other sensors where I was not initially involved were in the fields of gas detection – where for flammable gases, Pellistors created a major business area – and fire detectors. It seems that UV and IR fire detection systems are still seeking the best approach. Possibly because of the awareness brought about by the Internet, the pace of change and the commercial opportunities, the large corporations are quick to acquire small spin-off companies from university or other research after any small success, because of what technology they may have discovered: they do this ‘just in case’, to protect their market position.

Current developments

The area I see as most important currently, and a fruitful area to flag up for research projects, is in any style of optical analytical measurement sensor. Specifically, the component that brought this into industrial instrumentation was the tuneable diode laser (TDL), developed prior to 2005 for the telecommunications industry, to transmit telephone conversations and data down fibre-optic cables. Around 2007 Yokogawa acquired a business from Dow Chemicals, which used TDL sensors for near-infrared absorption (NIR) measurements of a gas mixture, which gave the proportions of oxygen, carbon dioxide and monoxide, and water vapour. This allowed the unit to be used as a combustion analyser for industrial furnaces, boilers etc.

Over the last 10 years this area of technology has grown in importance, and in its capabilities. Spin-off companies have emerged from various universities, like Manchester and Glasgow. A significant task in these developments is the application of the solution to an industrial problem: it needs the two factors of solving both the technical design and the industrial application. Cascade Technologies was established in Glasgow in 2003, and their analysers were initially targeted at marine flue gas emissions monitoring. From 2013 they added a focus on pharmaceutical gaseous leak detection, and also the process industry, on ethylene plants. Their technology allows multiple gases to be measured simultaneously. The Cascade business has now been acquired by Emerson.

Another closely market-focused supplier of NIR analytical systems is TopNIR Systems of Aix en Provence, in France, actually a spin-off business from within BP. TopNIR use their systems to analyse hydrocarbons – both crude oil and processed products – to allow a refinery operator to know how to most profitably blend the available components into a final product, as well as to minimise any quality give-away in blending the different grades of gasoline and diesel. TopNIR quote the annual benefit to a typical refinery at $2 to $6 million, with an implied investment spend of up to $2 million!

This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of “South African Instrumentation and Control” published by


Emerson to work with Flexim

Emerson Automation Solutions and Flexim, the clamp-on ultrasonic flowmeter specialists, are to collaborate, to help process customers optimise their flow process design, flow meter selection and flow meter installation on capital projects. This will enable them to reduce execution risk and costs.

With customers under severe pressure to reduce schedule and cost targets on capital projects, Emerson project teams, using the Flexim clamp-on, ultrasonic flow metering portfolio in combination with the broader Emerson in-line flow meter products, are able to consult early and throughout the project cycle to reduce engineering, piping and installation costs as well as schedule risk.

Flexim non-intrusive flow meters are the market leaders in clamp-on, ultrasonic technology and provide the best reliability and the most advanced capability when addressing difficult applications with a non-intrusive flow solution. This co-operation will improve delivery of the exact flow solution needed by clients while supporting  ‘Project Certainty’ – the Emerson approach that is said to enable top-quartile performance in capital projects.

By empowering project teams with flow expertise to work with clients early in project phases, Emerson has consistently eliminated cost, accommodated change and reduced complexity on capital projects. The non-intrusive nature of the Flexim ultrasonic flow meters makes this product a powerful contributor to reduced engineering, piping and installation costs as well as schedule risk, given that it can be installed after piping is fabricated. Emerson and Flexim will collaborate to ensure less time is spent on engineering and installation by selecting the optimal flow solution for a given application and applying the most comprehensive flow portfolio available.

“In today’s market, we are seeing that our customers are looking for us to advise them early in their project cycle on technology to ensure streamlined and cost-effective project execution,” said Bret Shanahan, vice president of flow solutions, Emerson Automation Solutions. “We are pleased to be working with Flexim to provide our clients with the most appropriate flow solution that can be applied and support greater capital efficiency.”

“Flexim is excited to partner with Emerson on capital projects; our flexible, world-class, non-invasive meters are a perfect fit with the experienced Emerson project teams,” said Guido Schwanekamp, managing director for sales and marketing at Flexim. “Together we will be able to offer fully customised solutions that are tailor-made for a wide variety of capital projects, reducing capital expenditures while increasing efficiency for our clients and reducing total cost of ownership at the same time.”

Platon/Roxspur acquired by TT Electronics

It’s always interesting when your old company gets taken over, once again! Particularly when you thought it was being screwed up, by the acquirers. So I was disappointed to have missed a news release nearly 15 years later, about a subsequent take-over in 2014.

The event was that Roxspur Measurement & Control was acquired by TT Electronics for GBP8m in July 2014. The good news was that the TT annual report for 2014 suggested that Roxspur provided a GBP0.4m operating profit, included in their results at the end of 2014.

Roxspur was absorbed into the TT Electronics Industrial Sensing and Control division,  which had a sales revenue of GBP61m in 2015, and an operating profit of GBP11.4m. So Roxspur is now a small-ish cog in this much bigger wheel.

TT Electronics describes itself as manufacturing a comprehensive range of temperature, pressure, flow and level products designed for aerospace, industrial, oil and gas, power generation and water management applications through its Roxspur sub-brands Brearley, Platon, Sensit and Nulectrohms. The TT Electronics total sales revenue in 2015 was reported as GBP524m, with an operating profit of GBP30m. So Industrial Sensing and Control is in fact a very significant part of the whole.

I, and everyone else, have to hope that the succession of acquisitions that were imposed on the Platon  variable area glass and metal tube flowmeter measurement business after 1999, have brought some of the employees some benefit.  Over the previous 8 years the Basingstoke based team had built the flow measurement business, which included the well known pre-Internet Flowbits catalogue, into a GBP10m business. So this small part of the corporate group at that time was probably worth more than GBP8m. It faced the biggest business trading profile challenge ever, with the arrival of the Internet, just as it was hyped into a broader paper based catalogue for industrial engineers, renamed as “Controlbits” by the new acquirers.

There are still paper catalogues around, in 2016, but hyped up earnings expectations appeared to kill off the Platon catalogue. The chaos catapulted me, after a year recovering from being made redundant, into a new career, which I do not regret. It also spawned some spin off start-up companies, which have done well. Even the Platon Pension scheme, which had to be the subject of a Government funded rescue, has at last started to pay out some of the pensions due, as from 2015.

So there were benefits! Ironically I did, at that time, and maybe still have, a minimal number of shares in TT Electronics!


2M EM Flowmeters in 40 years

Since 1977, Endress+Hauser has produced over two million electromagnetic flowmeters. The company claim this is more than any other manufacturer, and that E+H is the market leader in electromagnetic flowmeter technology. “This magic number stands for high-quality measuring technology and, above all, satisfied customers in all kinds of industries,” says Bernd-Josef Schäfer, Managing Director of Endress+Hauser Flowtec AG, the center of competence for flow measuring technology.

The Endress+Hauser success story as a manufacturer of electromagnetic flowmeters began in the middle of the 1970s. In order to enter the water and wastewater market which was emerging at that time, E+H purchased the company ‘Flowtec’ in Bern, in 1977, and moved it to a new location in Reinach (Basel-Landschaft, Switzerland). This is where Endress+Hauser started to produce flowmeters with just three employees, in a former military barracks.


The 1977 production unit at Reinach

Then, work was done on an on-demand basis. “Whereas today,” says Bernd-Josef Schäfer, “our production spans six sites around the globe – in Switzerland, France, the USA, China, India, and Brazil – and boasts state-of-the-art logistics. This infrastructure is what has enabled us to produce two million electromagnetic flowmeters to date in accordance with required quality standards.” These two million electromagnetic flowmeters could measure a volume corresponding to four times the flow rate of the Amazon. Each production site also features precise calibration facilities which are regularly checked by national accreditation bodies and which guarantee consistently high measuring quality for each individual device.

Constant innovation for customer satisfaction

The company’s success, which spans almost 40 years, is due to many factors. In particular, its inventive talent has enabled Endress+Hauser to keep offering its customers new, groundbreaking devices capable of measuring all kinds of fluids, such as water, milk, acids, alkalis, or ore slurry, with the greatest accuracy. With clever innovations such as the precision measurement of difficult fluids (Autozero, 1981), microprocessor control (Variomag, 1984), two-wire technology (Eximag, 1987), or the operating matrix (Tecmag, 1990), Endress+Hauser has always managed to stay one step ahead of the competition.


In 1985, 800 and 2000mm bore flowmeters were produced for monitoring drinking water supplies delivered around Algiers

In 1993, all of these device variants were brought together to form a single product family under the name of “Proline”. Alongside this family, however, Endress+Hauser also produces flowmeters for very particular applications – for example, filling bottles at one-second intervals.

Looking to the future with Proline

Since 1993, the Proline device family has undergone constant development to ensure that it meets the prevailing requirements in a wide range of industries. Following the second generation launched in 2000, the third and most recent Proline generation (2012) offers a multitude of unique functions and device properties. This means that system operators will not only be able to retrieve measurement and diagnostic data via display, WLAN, web server, or fieldbus, but will also be able to monitor the process comprehensively and, if necessary, check the functioning of a flowmeter during operation.


One modern production line for Proline electronics units

Bernd-Josef Schäfer sees the future of Endress+Hauser optimistically: “Innovations such as these enable us to align our product portfolio consistently with the needs of every industry. We are looking ahead to our three-millionth electromagnetic flowmeter with great confidence.”

This E+H release was first published by Eoin O’Riain in in Ireland

The Yokogawa User Group conference in Budapest

The “User Group” conferences, which provide a meeting place for automation and control managers and engineers from different companies and industries to meet and share their operational experience, started in the USA, and have blossomed in Europe in the last few years. Usually hosted by a major supplier, they encourage their clients to come together in a way that is more cost effective, for them, than a standard commercial exhibition and conference. But they always gather their normal specialist sub-suppliers as partners, to also show and talk about their products, and explain how they can interface together to create a total plant system, in the mini-exhibition running alongside meal and coffee breaks.

IMG_20160523_214347932   DSCN3364

The conference dinner was held in the Hungarian National Gallery, by the side of the Danube 

The Yokogawa European User Group meeting took place this May in Budapest. It attracted around 200 engineers and interested editors from all around Europe: from Spain to Norway, from the UK to Turkey, to hear about recent new applications, and the latest product developments.


“Transformation 2017” is the current Yokogawa business plan, covering the three years from 2015-17: the year 2015 also happened to be the 100th year since the foundation of the company. So their anniversary year plan focuses on customer interfacing and “Co-Innovation”, which was the main conference theme for the presentations.

Yokogawa appears to have developed a different approach recently, and have become keen to bring in ideas, products and even make acquisitions to broaden their expertise base. They did this previously, but there is a greater emphasis now, it seems. They are also the ISA100 wireless sensor technology leader, amongst the main automation companies, and are helping more small sensor manufacturers to develop this capability.

Wireless sensors to ISA100

Yokogawa have produced wireless versions of their own temperature and pressure transmitters, as you would expect, plus have the routers and base stations necessary to complete the site system. More interesting, they have developed a wireless module, which can be integrated with other (third party supplier) sensors, to create a new wireless measurement sensor. They also have a battery pack that can be exchanged in a hazardous area, when needed, often only after ten years, but maybe after two years if that battery also powers a third party sensor and needs a fast data response time.

In a presentation about a Richter Gedeon Group pharmaceutical plant in Romania, Yokogawa described a wireless sensor installation that monitored the groundwater levels around the site, in 20 wells over an area 1500m x 600m, with some wells actually outside the factory fence. The historic weekly manual monitoring was not felt to be sufficiently frequent, and current environmental standards required an improvement, to at least 4 times a day. Standard HART submersible pressure sensors were used for the level measurement, powered by the battery pack in the Yokogawa wireless module, which communicated digitally with the sensors and then sent the data over ISA100 links. This provides hourly reporting data from each well, and allows the sensor to be put into sleep mode between readings.

The large area of the site, the topography and pipe bridges, provided a challenge for the wireless links. To achieve the transmission distances involved, Yokogawa planned the site layout with four of their independent wireless Routers, to gather data from the local sensors at the extreme distances, and then use the superior range achievable from the Router to the base station to deliver the data. This was then displayed by the pre-existing site ABB 800XA control system, to present any alarm data to the operators, and archive the records.

The IIOT and “Sushi Sensors”

Yokogawa say they have been working on the development of low-cost, small, battery operated wireless sensors, perhaps aptly named as “Sushi Sensors”, for ten years, as well as learning what associated data analysis is required to come to a meaningful conclusion about what the data – “Big Data” – is saying. So it was good to see their Sushi sensors on display, in different colours (as you might expect: blue, yellow/gold, and silver) – all with a little stub aerial. But turn these little bugs over and there was an empty shell – nothing there yet! Nevertheless, the work is going on, initially to produce temperature sensor systems: watch that space.

On other stands the GasSecure GS01 hydrocarbon gas detector was on show, which is another ISA100 wireless sensor from Dräger, marketed by Yokogawa for LNG and oil and gas facilities.


Spirax Sarco STAPS

Next, Spirax Sarco presented their latest wireless sensor, used for monitoring steam traps on petrochemical plants. Available only recently, from March 2016, this sensor uses the standard ISA100 system, and is called STAPS (which stands for Spirax Total Acoustic Performance Solutions). The acoustic sensing uses a PZT sensor clamped to the outside of the steam line, alongside the trap, and can indicate when the trap is blocked, and when it has failed open, and is leaking live steam. Not only does the STAPS sensor calculate and transmit the rate of steam loss, so the operator can assess the cost and therefore the urgency needed to make a repair, it can analyse the actual type of trap failure. This is done within the sensor electronics, by measuring the emitted acoustic signatures in multiple bands between 5 and 40kHz, to suggest whether the problem is dirt, or a sticky valve, or a damaged valve seat. The STAPS sensor is available intrinsically safe, for petrochemical applications: Spirax previously offered a different wireless sensor for standard industrial plants and boiler rooms, which used a Zigbee communications link.

Customer software and Co-Innovation

There have been two Yokogawa acquisitions in the field of ‘management’ software, which are focused on making the computer based control systems supplied by Yokogawa for plant and process control provide the overview data required by management, improving the connectivity between plant and office, and optimising business operations. First they acquired Industrial Evolution Inc, in January 2016, who provide cloud-based plant data sharing services, or DaaS (Data-as-a-Service). Yokogawa renamed this business Industrial Knowledge: this service has been used in a broad variety of applications such as the sharing of data on oil and gas field operations among authorized users at multiple companies, and the real-time sharing of data with investors on facilities that are operated by third parties. For example when an oilfield is jointly owned by three oil companies, but only one of them acts as the main operator.

Then in April Yokogawa acquired KBC Technologies, a successful provider of software and consultancy focused on achieving operational excellence and improving profitability for both the upstream (oil production) and downstream (oil refineries and petrochemicals production) segments – advanced software for process optimisation and simulation. Originating with three process engineers who started life at the Exxon Fawley refinery, KBC also now incorporates the original Honeywell HPS reactor technology expertise, acquired in 1998, and the chemicals processing technology developed at Infochem, acquired in 2012.

Combining KBC and Industrial Evolution into their Industrial Knowledge business, Yokogawa is expanding its advanced solutions service business by engaging with its customers in a co-innovation process, to add value, using company-wide optimisation of the business operations.

Co-innovation with the specialists

Oil fiscal metering using specialist skids at oil tanker batch shipping terminals is a major application area for Coriolis meters. Yokogawa have just upgraded their Coriolis product line to improve their performance, using modern electronics and sensor technology. The pressure drop for a given flow rate has been greatly reduced, and on-site accuracy enhanced to meet the laboratory tested specifications. Also tube condition monitoring enables on-site checks to confirm that the process conditions have not affected the measurement tubes.


M+F skids in use at a tanker terminal

Unlike other Coriolis suppliers, Yokogawa do not offer an in-house fiscal metering skid production facility, but rely on the knowledge of their specialist customers to achieve the total package offer. So via their chosen skid supplier customer, M+F Technologies of Hamburg, they have supplied meters for terminal management systems, tank truck loading systems, aircraft and ship supply across the world. The M+F MFX4 batch flow computer has been supplied for blending, leak detection and terminal operations in Latin America, Russia, EU, and Cuba. The latest Yokogawa Coriolis meters, the TI product range, has enabled M+F to reduce the size of the gas separators involved, reducing the skid footprint, and also M+F have reduced the maintenance costs associated. Using TCP/IP communications the system has 24/7 remote maintenance available, essential for 24 hour terminal operations.


The two or three conference days crammed in a lot more than was described above: the delegate just chooses the topics of major interest on his plant. Further announcements showed that Yokogawa is to now construct complete Analyser house systems in Spain, in addition to their existing facilities in Singapore and USA, to serve the European market primarily. Here they act as the site systems supplier, perhaps in contrast to their approach to fiscal metering described above. Yokogawa are also collaborating with Cisco Systems over the Shell SecurePlant initiative, which is to be rolled out over 50 Shell plants, and have developed an interesting collaboration with StatOil, to use wireless sensors to monitor the on-site sound noise level on offshore oil platforms, to ensure personnel safety and monitoring.

YokogawaASICenterEurope_01 (1)

An Analyser house supplied by Yokogawa

The next Yokogawa User Group meeting will be in South Africa in October, for three days in Johannesburg, which should be well worth attending.

Ethernet added to Emerson Coriolis meter

J943 coriolisAdditionally, the transmitter incorporates a configurable I/O channel, which can be used as a discrete input or set to a mA, frequency or discrete output. This enables powerful application options with minimal equipment. For example, the discrete input can be used as a totaliser reset, the discrete output can control a valve in conjunction with the integrated batch control software, the frequency output enables a quick connection for proving applications, or the mA output can be used to tie into existing or legacy control systems.

The Ethernet upgrade is available with multiple protocol choices including EtherNet/IP, Modbus TCP, and Profinet.

To speed integration and connection with Ethernet/IP systems, the transmitter contains an EDS (electronic data sheet) file for fast access to instrument information with little to no manual setup. This also enables automatic AOP (add-on profile) generation for quick and powerful system integration. Pre-configured input assemblies allow users to select exactly what is needed from a wealth of information in a Coriolis meter, without burdening the network with unwanted traffic.

“The Micro Motion Model 5700 Coriolis transmitter has delivered proven value and unique differentiation to users. The rugged housing is certified for tough field environments, including extensive hazardous area certifications and approvals. The housing was engineered to provide easy access for installation, mounting, and maintenance,” said Jason Leapley, product manager. “Now, with the option for native Ethernet, users can easily access process information without going out to the instrument.” readers will be aware that Endress+Hauser has used Ethernet on their Coriolis meters since the 2011 Rockwell Automation Fair: their unit was launched in about 2010.


The new Process Atrato ultrasonic flowmeter

A new flowmeter for small bore liquid flows has been introduced Titan Enterprises, an enterprising British company, who are a long established manufacturer of liquid flowmeter systems. Their first ultrasonic meter was introduced in around 2010, after a long development programme in co-operation with Prof Mike Sanderson at Cranfield University, and was called the Atrato. This unit was launched for the typical markets served by Titan, of laboratory testing, drinks dispensing, cooling systems, pilot plants, fuel cells, pharmaceutical applications and OEMs – and offered a 200:1 turndown, 1% accurate obstructionless straight through meter with a 4-20mA output. Materials were mainly PEEK and borosilicate glass or stainless steel for the flow tube, but the BSP or NPT male fittings were available in stainless steel. A very clever and high performance flowmeter for flows up to 20 Litres/min.

The Launch in 2010

Regrettably, while having worked with Titan for many years prior to 2010 on their PR and promotion, a high flying expensive agency was brought in to promote the Atrato, so it disappeared off my radar. I should not say much about whether it has been seen by anyone else since then, because I don’t have any info: but why are you reading this?

Now a new launch has been announced by Titan, of the Process Atrato flowmeter: a new version of the basic flowmeter, now ‘packaged for the process and control environment’.

The Titan Atrato for the Process Industry


This unit is built from 316 stainless steel and PEEK, plus an elastomer seal to suit the application, and has the on-board electronics sealed to IP65. From the photo you can see that the threads into the stainless steel process connection (at the top of the flowmeter) are female. The lower screw thread is for an M12 four pin electrical connector. The unit is suitable for 65 Celcius and 25 bar process conditions: the non-process Atrato can operate up to 110C if the electronics is installed remotely, so presumably this might be a future development. Flow range covered is 2mL/min to 15 Litres/min, using four flowtube sizes.

Each of the four models covering the different flow ranges is configured to offer the same pre-set ‘K-factor’, which is quoted to assist OEM use and interchangeability: but it also highlights that the electronic output available on these “process units” is a PNP and an alternative NPN pulse train, quoted as a ‘frequency’ output. Presumably this relates back to the pulse output style as was provided by the other Titan turbine and positive displacement flowmeter sensors. A separate power supply, from 8-24VDC, is used to power the unit.

A few criticisms

The other surprise for me was that the meter is pictured, and obviously intended for installation, ‘upside down’, with the electrical connections and housing below the flow line. When this Process Atrato is really an equivalent to a thermal mass style gas flowmeter application, but on liquids, you would think it would be sensible to have it looking similar to these other, well-known gas flow devices. The reason for this cannot be that it needs to allow entrained air to escape, as the flow tube is just a straight tube, with no complicated connections which might trap anything.

For the engineers who can see through these confusion factors, the device is a very effective flowmeter, 200:1 turndown, +/-1% accuracy over 2-100% of range, while working with viscous as well as non-viscous fluids – with the standard Atrato features of linearity, no moving parts and fast response time. Plus the PR says it will offer a ‘reduced cost of ownership’, but does not specify what this is compared with…..surely the point is that there is not much else on offer to provide this performance, except maybe a micro-Coriolis meter.

If Only….

The pity is, ever since launching the Bestobell Doppler flowmeter in 1976, and the Platon Kat in 1998, I’ve been looking forward to being involved in the launch a decent ultrasonic flowmeter for clean liquid process applications…..