Confusion over radar level measurement

We have learned not to get too confused over suppliers using buzz-words and clever marketing names, but recently it seems the major level measurement system vendors have been introducing new and higher radar frequency systems as their latest development – and therefore, by implication, maybe the best. We were used to 6 GHz, and then 26 GHz radar frequencies, but why should we suddenly go to 80 GHz? Then, perhaps just to add a little excitement to the mix, Endress+Hauser started talking about 113 GHz!

113GHz_Key_Visual

The E+H radar line up that offers 113GHz!

This article was first featured in the journal South African Instrumentation & Control in September 2017, a journal published by Technews

Let’s dispel a few myths. Firstly, in the same way that lasers for fibre-optic communications systems made the technology available to create infrared optical systems for process gas analysers, and mobile phone technology possibly provided the hardware for the first radar level measurement systems; the 80 GHz versions are a result of measurement technology made commercially viable on the back of production investment in the distance measurement systems and parking sensors used in modern cars. So the suppliers take the available sensors and chipsets to create a new industrial product, and then have to find the best applications – in this case, the ones that might benefit from the 80 GHz.

Secondly, E+H do not have a 113 GHz system, this is a marketing statement, made to catch attention – ‘with a wink’ is their expression. They claim a ‘complete radar competence of 113 GHz’ because this is the sum of the many different frequencies their different sensors use! These are 1, 6, 26 and 80 GHz.

So why have different frequencies?

Possibly the best explanation for the applications suited to the different frequencies has been provided by the Rosemount measurement division of Emerson, in their “Engineer’s Guides”. The Emerson expertise stretches back many years, having acquired the Saab Tank Radar business. Per Skogberg, from the Gothenburg HQ in Sweden, separates the devices into low, medium and high frequency, to generalise.

Radar signals are attenuated, i.e. they lose signal strength as they pass through the air, or vapour, above the liquid. High frequencies are more severely affected than lower. When the air has moisture, steam or liquid droplets (from spray or filling) present, the attenuation is higher. Equally in solids applications, dust particles have the same effect. So low and medium frequency radar are best when there is dust or moisture present.

At lower frequencies, the wavelength is longer (30-50 mm), so surface ripples in a tank have a small effect. At higher frequencies, surface ripples and foam on the surface can be a problem. But the shorter wavelength of the high frequency units (4 mm) allows accurate operation over short ranges, for example in small tanks. The higher frequency units can use a smaller sensor construction, so the unit is easier to install. The beam angle is narrower, so it can be aimed at a smaller target area and therefore can be positioned more easily to avoid any obstructions in the tank. But even this can be a disadvantage, as the installation needs to be exactly vertical and any turbulence of the surface during filling or stirring can cause the signal to be lost temporarily, in larger tanks.

When reading these suggestions, it is important to remember that Emerson does not offer an 80 GHz unit yet, so their marketing approach would naturally bias users to look at low and medium frequency units. The suppliers of high frequency units (Vega, Krohne and E+H) would point out that in many liquid storage tanks the surface is undisturbed, since any foam, turbulence and significant ripples (>2 mm) caused by filling or liquid transfer will only cause short-term interference. Plus the small antenna size and short range performance make 80 GHz units very useful for smaller process vessels and tanks.

Radar system types

There are two types of radar systems, Guided Wave Radar (GWR) and Free Space Radar. The GWR systems use a conducting rod, or similar, extending down into the liquid, often working in a stilling chamber attached to the main process tank. These operate at low microwave frequencies, and are independent of surface turbulence and foam. They are useful for shorter range measurements and interface measurement between liquids, as well as long ranges.

The Free Space Radar systems are more widely used, since they are top-mounted with nothing in the tank: indeed, some can operate through non-conducting windows in the tank roof. Low and medium frequency radar systems generally transmit a signal pulse and measure the liquid distance by the time delay for the returned pulse. High frequency (80 GHz) systems use an FMCW radar measurement, where the frequency of the transmission is swept, and the frequency difference of the returned signal is measured to assess the distance. The FMCW technique is also used at 26 GHz in some recently launched sensors.

Radar systems can transmit their measurement data using 4-20 mA, fieldbus systems like HART, FF, Profibus PA and Modbus, or indeed via wireless systems like Bluetooth. The low and medium frequency pulsed radar systems generally operate over a two-wire interface: some of the higher frequency FMCW systems require more power and use a separate power connection.

Major applications

Simple low-cost radar level measurement sensors have been specifically designed for water industry use, in sewage sumps and flume flow measurement, by Vega and Endress+Hauser. Vega suggest that 40,000 such sensors are now in use in the water industry, mainly in Europe, and claim their total output of such sensors exceeds 550,000 units over the last 25 years.

Several of these devices use simple Bluetooth interrogation and programming from a handheld PDA: E+H demonstrates this at its facility in Maulberg, working on the stream that runs through the factory complex, as seen below.

Micropilot_FMR10_FMR20_on test stream at Maulberg, with operator using Bluetooth

Both E+H and Vega produce further industrial units for use on process vessels, and storage vessels for solids and liquids. Recently, E+H has extended its capability to add long-range units, such as the 80 GHz FMR62, working at up to 80 m range, with an accuracy of 1 mm. Other units work up to 125 m range, at 3 mm accuracy. These units will eventually be aimed at the large petrochemical industry storage tank markets, and specifically are working towards use for custody transfer duties.

Krohne have similarly announced a new range of its 80 GHz Optiwave sensors. Some of these can even operate at up to 700°C, for example for use on molten salt vessels in solar power plants. Lower specification units rated at up to 150°C can be used through a tank roof made of plastic, or similar materials. Suitable for small or narrow tanks, the unit can measure ranges of up to 100 m. Krohne also offers lower frequency Optiwave systems for use on solids and powders, or to electronically monitor the float position in magnetic level indicator columns attached to process vessels.

Postscript: Krohne is organising a webinar with the title “80 GHz Radar Level – Allrounder or Overrated?” to discuss their recent developments with such systems. This webinar will take place on 18th October 2017 at 3pm London time/10am New York time.

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The value of Specialist Automation Suppliers

Engineers around the world are looking at how to benefit from the various solutions to the IIOT on offer: the article posted on 2 February entitled “How DCS Vendors see their IIOT future” covered the approaches being adopted by some of the major DCS vendors. This follow-up article, written for and first published in South Africa, in the Technews South African Instrumentation & Control Journal, March 2017, covers the approach of some of the smaller, specialist suppliers to their own selected sectors of the process industries.

While the major DCS suppliers try to work out how to provide revenue earning services from the growth of the IIOT, there are many specialist engineering product and systems suppliers who are investing in making their products easier for engineers to use in networks, and operate within the IIOT.

Most of these specialists are primarily focussed on the production of their valves, sensors, controllers or drives: this is their business – and they need their products to work with any interface the customer requires. Their expertise in interfacing their own products is the best available, they have an in-house systems knowledge base and capability. Most now offer this capability to their would-be product users as a service – offering a custom designed system incorporating the products. So look to these suppliers to offer the best engineering at an economic price, within their specialist field.

Typically these single-minded companies were set up by a design engineer with a good original product idea, and this has been developed and refined over the years. Often the company is family owned – and engineering / R&D investment takes precedence over profit distribution. Some such companies still exist in the USA, and a few in the UK, like JCB and Rolls Royce. Several specialist engineering product examples are found in suppliers originating from Germany, Scandinavia and middle Europe, where the culture seems to have encouraged their survival.

Beckhoff Automation

Arnold Beckhoff started his company in 1953: Beckhoff Automation now has a turnover of Euro 620 million, and employs 3350 people. The company implements open automation systems based on PC control technology, scalable from high performance Industrial PCs to mini PLCs, I/O and fieldbus components, plus drive technology and automation software. Supplying systems to many industries, Beckhoff works with and supplies components for over 15 major fieldbus systems. Motion control solutions solve single and multiple axis positioning tasks, and their servomotors offer combined power and feedback over a standard motor cable.

The Beckhoff TwinCAT 3 engineering and control automation software integrates real-time control with PLC, NC and CNC functions in a single package, and then all Beckhoff controllers are programmed using TwinCAT in accordance with IEC 61131-3. While the built-in TwinCAT condition monitoring libraries allow the on-site controllers to monitor the status of the sensors, to reduce downtime and maintenance costs, it also allows wider comparisons with connections to such cloud services as Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services. Other data connections are available, for example a smartphone app enables immediate local and mobile display of a machine‘s alarm and status messages.

Bürkert Fluid Control Systems

Bürkert was founded in 1946 by Christian Bürkert: it now has sales of Euro 412 million and employs over 2500 people. The product base is gas and liquid control valves, systems for measuring and controlling gases and liquids, plus sensors for monitoring such fluids, extending to complete automation solutions and fluid systems – this capability is known as their ‘Systemhaus’. While their products are now applied across many industries, their particular specialisations have been in sanitary, sterile and hygienic applications (food, beverage, biotech and pharmaceuticals), micro applications (medical, inkjet and beverage mixing/vending), and water treatment industries.

From the UK operation, Bürkert provide locally engineered solutions and systems for their pharma, food and brewery customers in particular. Locally made craft beers are a major growth area in the UK, and most start small, with no real automation. One example was Stroud Brewery, who needed to expand production by a factor of 5x, and preferably not increase their staff numbers: Bürkert designed a PLC system and intelligent control panel, which automated the temperature control of the cold and hot liquor tanks, and in the mash pan. In addition a system for controlling the run-off rate from the mash tun simply uses three separate Bürkert level sensors.

Bürkert also have developed their own ‘Device Cloud’, they call this ‘mySITE’. This collects data from Bürkert sensors around the world, using an on-site interface known as mxConnect – which can also accept data inputs from other sensors.

National Instruments

National Instruments was only started in 1976, in the USA, by Dr James Truchard and a colleague, who are still involved in the business. Now sales are $1320 million, and they have 7400 employees worldwide. Their declared Mission is to “equip scientists and engineers with systems that accelerate productivity, innovation, and discovery” – and their focus has always been to supply research establishments and engineers with open, software-centric platforms with modular, expandable hardware. This gives its own logistics problems, with 35,000 customers served annually.

It is difficult for me, as an outside observer, to relate the NI systems to an oil refinery or chemical plant application: but it comes into its own when the data handling grows in complexity – for example in pharmaceutical and biotech applications, and the sort of plants where engineers have a major input in monitoring the application. Mention cyclotron or Tokomak, CERN or the Large Hadron Collider, and NI and its LabView are embedded in their engineering control systems. All 108 collimators on the LHC are position controlled using LabView.

National Grid UK, which controls the distribution and transmission of electric power round the country, has adopted a control system based on the NI CompactRIO for the whole network. With many new power generating sources, HVDC connections, variable inputs from solar and wind farms, and the phasing out of major fossil fuelled plants, National Grid found that traditional measurement systems did not offer adequate coverage or response speed to handle these new challenges and risks. They adopted a platform, based on the CompactRIO, to provide more measurements – and also adapt with the evolving grid for generations to come. This interconnected network includes 136 systems, with 110 permanently installed in substations throughout England and Wales and 26 portable units that provide on-the-go spot coverage as needed.  The associated software systems provide their engineers with customized measurement solutions that can be upgraded in the future as new grid modernization challenges arise.

In terms of IoT developments, NI has just opened an Industrial IoT lab at the NI Austin HQ in the USA, to focus on intelligent systems that connect operational technology, information technology and the companies working on these systems. Many other companies are co-operating in this venture, like Cisco and SparkCognition, and the lab intends to foster such collaboration to improve overall interoperability. In addition NI has partnered with IBM and SparkCognition to collaborate on a condition monitoring and predictive maintenance testbed: this will use the SparkCognition cognitive analytics to proactively avoid unplanned equipment fatigue and failure of critical assets.

(c) Nick Denbow 2017

How DCS Vendors see their IIOT future

Engineers around the world are looking at how to benefit from various IIOT offerings: the survey below covering the approaches being adopted by some of the major DCS vendors was first published in South Africa, in the Technews South African Instrumentation & Control Journal, February 2017. Next month a similar article will cover the approach of some of the specialist suppliers to the process industries.

The last year saw all the major DCS and process control systems suppliers re-assess their business positioning, in the face of the turndown in capital spending as a result of the continuing recession and fall in commodity prices, led by oil. Their problem is that their main business cycles between feast and famine, as it is dependent on investment project business. Harry Forbes of ARC Advisory Group notes that automation companies will do nearly anything to protect their installed user base, because that’s where they believe future revenues will come, and come more easily than winning projects. So the way to survive the famine is to provide on-going services to these asset owners, to maintain the business relationship, and be better positioned when capital investment returns. Plus they stop competitive suppliers gaining a foothold via similar service contracts.

The current area of interest for most manufacturing plants is IIOT, and so the automation vendors have been focusing on this, plus Big Data and analytics, offered by remote ‘cloud-based’ services. The different suppliers come from different market positions, and so their approaches, while offering the same, are tailored in different ways.

Emerson Automation Solutions

Peter Zornio of Emerson expressed his very clear view of this market back in April at their Global User’s Exchange in Brussels. Emerson is involved in the IIOT: this does not include the ‘Smart Cities’ that Siemens and ABB talk about, nor Industrie 4.0, which extends from production back up into design concepts – IIOT is just ‘Manufacturing’. I believe Emerson also recognise that their process control systems cannot be a part of IIOT, they must be fenced off, with firewalls etc, to prevent cyber-security worries, and blocked from external inputs. But this does not stop them transmitting information outwards, and the whole Emerson approach of ‘Pervasive Sensors’ – their major new topic for 2015 – is now an important feed, into IIOT analytics.

The resulting offering is a cloud-based service developed in co-operation with MicroSoft, using their Azure IoT Suite of cloud services. Having worked with MicroSoft for over 20 years, their Windows 10 IoT technology will be incorporated into both the DeltaV and Ovation control systems and in data gateways to serve plant data to the Azure IoT Suite. Emerson will then provide the data analysis services that feed back information and recommendations to the relevant plant personnel, for example about plant performance or equipment maintenance. Zornio described this as a remote service similar to the ‘Monitoring Centre’ typical of the electricity generation industry, or the ‘iOps centre’ typically described in the oil and gas industry – which shows the areas of focus for the Emerson control system business.

Since then, Emerson restructured their widely separated divisions, Process Management and Industrial Automation, into one business, Emerson Automation Solutions, under newly appointed president Michael Train. This brings in some of the factory automation aspects covered by the old Industrial Automation Division, and extends the potential for the same IIOT monitoring into other areas of the manufacturing plant, such as power supplies, packaging and even discrete manufacturing. However, as part of their restructuring, Emerson has sold off significant parts of what was their Industrial Automation business, bringing in significant amounts of cash. In December the Network Power business, serving mainly data centre and telecommunications customers, was sold to Platinum Equity for $4Bn: the business will be rebranded ‘Vertiv’. Then, just this month, the deal to sell the alternators, drives and motors businesses known as Leroy-Somer (France) and Control Techniques (UK) to the Nidec Corporation was finalised: their combined annual sales were $1.7Bn, but of more relevance now to Emerson, the resulting cash payment received from Nidec is $1.2Bn. So Emerson Automation Solutions has probably earmarked part at least of that $5.2Bn of cash for some interesting, relevant acquisitions, maybe in this IIOT services area.

Rockwell Automation

Rockwell Automation has a totally different customer profile, perhaps the reverse of that described for Emerson, having great strength in factory automation, food processing and discrete process control in general. Their product portfolio is strong on motor control, actuators, energy management etc, using Ethernet based systems and controllers, which give simple interfaces to remote data systems. Steven Meyer of SAIC reported that the Rockwell South African MD Barry Elliot commented at the Electra Mining Show that the challenge is ‘to do more with the assets the organisation already owns’. He added that “In most cases the data already exists: our challenge is to implement systems that enable us to turn this into actionable information to streamline productivity and efficiency”. Just what the customer audience wanted to hear.

In November Rockwell launched their ‘FactoryTalk Analytics for Machines’ cloud application, based on – the MicroSoft Azure cloud enabled capability – yes, them again! OEMs using Rockwell/Allen Bradley controllers on their machinery can embed a FactoryTalk Cloud gateway device, to interface to this Rockwell remote analytical service.  Back at corporate level, the new Rockwell CEO is Blake Moret, and his attention is also on developing the oil and gas process systems business that was actually doing well in Rockwell, but is smaller than that of rivals like Emerson: so he has acquired Maverick Technologies, one of their system integrator customers. First this give Rockwell access to the Maverick five years of experience in supplying remote operations support as a service. Second, Walt Boyes of the Industrial Automation Insider has pointed out that Maverick has craftily recruited many otherwise retiring process experts from such companies as Dow, DuPont, ExxonMobil and other first tier companies, amassing a couple of hundred very valuable grey heads with continuous process management expertise. These are very useful for remote service support and advice, supplied even from their retirement homes!

ABB and IoTSP

Maybe ABB will have an alternative approach? ABB has a concept described as the Internet of Things, Services and People (IoTSP). They last year joined the Steering Committee of the Industrial Internet Consortium, an organisation founded by AT&T, Cisco, General Electric, IBM, and Intel in 2014. Then in September they recruited Guido Jouret as their ‘Chief Digital Officer’ – he was at one time the General Manager of the Cisco ‘Internet of Things’ division. October, however, brought them back into line with Rockwell and Emerson, when their new ABB Ability offering was announced as standardised on MicroSoft Azure, “expanding the ABB leadership in energy and the fourth industrial revolution”: ABB will take “full advantage of Azure services such as Azure IoT Suite and Cortana Intelligence Suite to capitalise on insights gathered at every level from device, to system, to enterprise, to cloud”. Although ABB say they have had many years of successful collaboration with MicroSoft, from the website it appears Ability is a new venture – looking for applications in transport infra-structure, digital power substations, fleet management services, Smart buildings etc.

Yokogawa

Yokogawa started 2016 with two acquisitions, first ‘Data-as-a-Service’ provider Industrial Evolution Inc, who provide cloud-based plant data sharing services, followed by KBC Technologies, who specialise in offering oil and petrochemical production plants the advanced software needed for process optimisation and simulation. These two were combined to create their new Industrial Knowledge Division. Executive vp Satoru Kurosu commented that “Key strategic objectives of Yokogawa’s Transformation 2017 plan are to expand the solution service business, focus on customers, and co-create new value with customers through innovative technologies and services”.

They then followed up with a strategic investment in FogHorn Systems Inc, a Silicon Valley specialist in fog computing – said to be the solution to faster processing of IIOT data present in the cloud. At the year-end, Yokogawa made a further significant investment into IIOT technology, first with a $900k investment into Bayshore Networks, who specialise in cybersecurity, and have developed the Bayshore IT/OT Gateway for use in the cloud, separating IT Departments from OT (Operational Technology) infrastructure networks. More than that, Yokogawa announced the establishment of a new Architecture Development Division in California, to pursue the development of the core technologies needed to establish the robust and flexible architecture required to improve operational efficiency and productivity when using the IIoT. Their aim is to expand this US engineering centre to over 50 staff in the next five years.

In February 2017 Yokogawa published their own release describing how these businesses will work together, and introducing another co-operation with Telit IoT Platfoms LLC, who are said to offer “offers unmatched expertise, resources, and support to make IoT on-boarding easy – reducing risk, time to market, complexity, and costs for asset tracking, remote monitoring and control, telematics, industrial automation, and predictive maintenance across many industries and vertical markets worldwide”. The most interesting aspect of their approach is that they seem to be moving towards “Plug-and-play” technology expanding to enable sensors to automatically join and adapt to plant networks, plus cloud reporting and condition monitoring, making the plant engineer’s job a lot simpler!

Obviously Yokogawa have major ambitions to develop and offer IIOT cloud data services with the best in technology and cybersecurity, all with a reduced customer detailed input.

Developments in South Africa

With so many major suppliers stepping up to offer cloud based IIOT data analysis and reporting services, what do the plant managers do? Steven Meyer’s report on the recent conference on the topic organised by the African branch of the Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association highlighted the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report showing that South African companies plan to spend around R6Bn per year, until 2020, to implement the ideas of the fourth industrial revolution. In a keynote speech, local PwC director Pieter Theron made the telling comment that companies will need to find the right collaboration partners in order to improve their business efficiency through the technologies of the fourth industrial era – very few have the capability to go it alone.

These comments ring true for many large businesses all around the World: and it is clear that there are several interesting potential partners for these potential IIOT users to evaluate!

©Processingtalk.info

The latest Robots are Friendly

We all know what a robot is. But then it really does depend on whether you immediately think of them in ‘sci-fi’ films, or paint spray booths, or welding on automotive production lines, or stacking in automated warehouses. These have been the big applications, in big automated factories, with around 240,000 robots sold last year. The article below was for a column published in the November issue of South African Instrumentation & Control, see a digital copy on http://www.instrumentation.co.za/archives.aspx

The emergence of the cobot supplier

However, there is a new breed of robot now: collaborative robots, or cobots, have only really emerged as practical devices in the current decade. A cobot is a robot that is intended physically to interact with humans in a shared workspace, so the special pens and protective light curtains around the robot operating area are gone. The cobot is designed to work alongside a human operator, typically maybe lifting the heavier items involved in electronic device assembly operations: it has smooth surfaces with no sharp edges, and protected joints, so a human working alongside cannot trap their fingers, plus it stops at the slightest external touch.

Additionally, the cobot is flexible, it can be trained (taught) by the assembly operator, by guiding its arms and grippers to show it what to do. Currently the cobot market is around 5% of the total, $100 m last year. These robots are lower in cost, say $24,000 each, but are aimed at the small to medium sized companies that account for 70% of global manufacturing, where flexibility is essential. New international standards for their safe design and use are emerging, and there are many suppliers, as the market is forecast to be $1Bn by 2020.

ABB’s YuMi

yumi-robot

One such product is the ABB YuMi (‘you-me’) desk-top robot: a dual-arm small parts assembly robot that has flexible hands, incorporates parts feeding systems, camera-based part location and automated control: yet it has twice the reach and more strength than an operator. It can collaborate, side-by-side (or across the bench), with humans in a normal manufacturing environment, enabling companies to get the best of both humans and robots, working together.

In April, the ABB YuMi was recognised for outstanding achievements in commercialising innovative robot technology with the prestigious Invention and Entrepreneurship Award at the Automatica trade fair in Munich. There followed a Golden Finger award as ‘one of the best industrial robots of 2016’ at the China International Robot Show in Shanghai. One out of every four robots sold today is sold in China, which is the world’s leading robotics growth market: 68 000 units were sold there in 2015, 17% up on 2014.

YuMi was specifically designed to help consumer electronics meet the challenges produced by the need for customised personal electronics products, by enabling operators and cobots to share tasks, with easy training when the task changes. The YuMi appears to be targeted at the assembly operations common with electronic equipment, significantly in Southeast Asia.

Universal Robots – another successful start-up.

Universal Robots (UR) was formed in Odense, Denmark in 2005, with the goal of making robot technology accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises. It introduced its first cobot in 2008, and particularly focused on food industry applications, with 3,5 and 10 kg payload cobots. Their average payback period of 195 days for customers is claimed as the fastest in the industry.

Recently its cobot arms have been awarded certification for use in clean room applications, so UR robots can now be used in areas where purity and hygiene – such as particle emission, easy-to-clean surfaces and extreme reliability – are decisive criteria for precise automation processes. This opens up more applications in the food industry, in the production of microchips and semiconductors, and in the electrical and optoelectronic industries.

At the end of 2014, more than 3500 UR robots were installed worldwide: currently they claim the figure is 6000 – annual sales maybe growing x2,5 in just over a year. Mercedes-Benz has replaced old robots with humans on some lines, to better manage customised products. They are moving to having production workers guiding a part automatic robot. Scientists at MIT, working with BMW, have found that robot-human teams can be about 85% more productive than either of them, alone. Subsequently Universal Robots were rated #25 on the MIT Technology Review’s list of the world’s 50 smartest companies: Teradyne Inc then acquired UR for $285 m in 2015.

The Future for the IIOT

Technews in South Africa has recently published their 2016 Industry Guide to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT). The whole publication is available on line, despite being a massive 60 page publication, with many and varied articles on this all-pervading topic. This Annual Supplement to the SA Instrumentation and Control magazine draws on example applications from Europe and the USA, as well as from suppliers who provide the technology capability. This industry guide can be downloaded from the SAIC Archives, on http://www.instrumentation.co.za/archives.aspx.

The challenge the Editor, Steven Meyer, gave me, was to comment on the future direction of the ‘Internet of Things’, so inevitably I turned to some of the new gurus of the industry, who seem to be given the label “Futurists”, or “Trendwatchers” – and it is a growing discipline!

What these guys say

The latest trend evident in the presentations at conferences and corporate presentations, such as those organized by automation suppliers like Emerson and Yokogawa, is for a look into the future, and speculation as to what is to come in the next 15 years. Apart from the information about their new products, and new applications of their systems enabling better automation, these conference organizers also now offer a presentation from a “Trend-watcher” or “Futurist”. Inevitably basing their arguments on the way technology has grown, in relation to computing power, mobile phones, and the Internet, these presentations try to explain the IOT, Internet Of Things, of today – to then discuss what the IOT will really provide, and what will be accepted as normal, in ten years’ time.

Richard van Hooijdonk, a ‘Trendwatcher’

For the Yokogawa European conference, their Trendwatcher was Richard van Hooijdonk, from the Netherlands. A well-known Radio lecturer, Richard is also a lecturer at the Nyenrode & Erasmus University (maybe they made a new subject area for him?). Entitled ‘Trends 2030’, his presentation linked the IOT with the growth of robots; with wearable and injected (into the body) electronics; with ‘Big Data’; with 4D printing and with cybercrime.

NARIM Congres 2015 foto: Robert Tjalondo; www.rockinpictures.com 2015

Richard van Hooijdonk, Trendwatcher

Van Hooijdonk backs up what he says with his actions, at least enough to make us stop and think. He has had an RFID code implanted into his arm, which not only establishes his body with an IP address, but provides the access code to the electronic lock on his apartment, so that he is recognized and the door is unlocked when he turns the door knob. The unit also is programmed with the number for his Bitcoin account. While admitting that the injection process was not painless, his whole approach was that such technology will become smaller and cheaper, with future volume application. So the injections will be less painful, at least!

Personal sensors vs robot automation

Probably everyone in the audience understood and could relate to different parts of Richard’s view of the major future developments likely. Certainly I could understand the function of some wearable electronic systems that monitor heart rate, temperature and blood pressure, etc, but lost the plot when this device was also bio-chemically analysing data from an internal pill or pills that circulate around and analyse the blood and other fluids, to look for symptoms or diseases that need treatment, and then automatically call the Doctor!

However I could relate to the emphasis placed on robot automation, which particularly included advanced drones that can now use optical imaging to identify sections of fields or crops which need spraying with insecticide or seeds or fertiliser etc: the drones are self-programmed to fly over the field in a regular search pattern. Automated and self-checking robots for window cleaning, lawnmowers, carpet cleaning and floor polishing, litter picking and hoovering are all about to take over such manual jobs. Robotics will then take over other duties, like planting out seedlings and watering individual pots in garden centres. In the kitchen the fridge will know when it has run out of specific items like eggs, milk and butter, and order them automatically from the grocer, on a schedule.

Relating this to IOT

In terms of automation the IOT offers the interlinking between multiple devices, pieces of home equipment for example: the alarm clock rings, after having consulted your schedule, weather and traffic reports, to decide when you need to be awake: the curtains open, or alternately the lights are switched on, the bath is filled and the coffee pot or kettle switched on to brew a drink. But these actions may not have to be programmed, the devices themselves, and other sensors, will have been fed into a big ‘consequences’ database in the cloud somewhere, that uses pattern recognition to learn repeated sequences, and can then take over and run these sequences automatically. This ‘Big Data’ processing facility, using pattern recognition, creating artificial intelligence that can process all this data, is a necessary adjunct to the simple sensors – we can’t look at all that mass of information ourselves. Such data processing can be seen in a small way already, when the supermarkets collect your purchase pattern information, and use this to predict when you will buy these same goods again: if you don’t buy them when the computer thinks you should, it can send you a reminder, or even a special offer, to tempt you back to the store. Alternatively, look for a price for a flight on-line: suddenly adverts for that flight appear on every web page you access, and alongside your emails that mention keywords like ‘holiday’.

Jack Uldrich, a ‘Futurist’

The Emerson European User Group conference on the other hand, brought Jack Uldrich over from the USA. Jack started life as a naval intelligence officer, and developed an ability to talk American almost as fast as my brain can translate the words being used. He now describes himself as a Futurist, and consults for many major investment groups, plus is a regular guest on CNN and CNBC. In his website (jackuldrich.com) he presents a paper describing the ten ways IOT will “Open up a Future of Opportunity”.

DSCN3125 uldrich at emerson conf.JPG

Jack Uldrich, a Futurist, looking over his own shoulder?

Jack sees the alarm clock wake-up routine quoted above as the simplest use of IOT: a more comprehensive view is that sensors in your pyjamas, mattress, home lighting systems and the kitchen monitor everything from your diet to your sleep pattern, and tell you to modify your behaviour to improve your lifestyle – for example tell you to reduce the caffeine intake after 6pm, and tell your bedroom lights to slowly get brighter as soon as you come out of REM sleep – whatever that is!

I leave you to read the rest of the paper: but Uldrich takes IOT with Big Data as just one of the major triggers for change. The other factors he lists are Social media, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, AI and renewable energy, which will all coalesce to focus on the intelligent automation of our lives.

New opportunities  

Jack Uldrich sees some major business entrepreneurs emerging as a result of the technology changes around us already, identifying Spacex in satellite launchers (the re-useable ones that now land on ocean barges); Tesla new designs of electric cars, and their plans to develop a 0.5 million units a year production facility for the required car batteries by 2020; GE producing 3D printed aero-engine parts (such as turbine blades) by 2020; and Deloitte recently moving into an office building in Amsterdam that can use IOT sensors to automatically reduce energy consumption by 85%. Richard van Hooijdonk also pointed to disruptive new ideas overturning established markets, mentioning Uber in taxi services; BnB in renting holiday houses; Spotify in music; and Netflix in taking over the video rental market digitally.

These Trendwatchers/Futurists do have a place in business. In fact, van Hooijdonk teaches companies how to anticipate and deal with major changes that might disrupt their business, by creating their own internal disruption team. In this way they may avoid the fate of Kodak, Blockbuster, and Proctor & Gamble. There are obviously many profitable careers opening up in presenting trendwatching lectures, some forecasting IOT scenarios for the future.

But what about the IOT?

Gartner, a leading information technology research and advisory company, forecasts that 6.4 Billion ‘things’ will be connected to the Internet by end 2016, up 30% from 2015, and that this number will reach 20 Billion by 2020. These devices will generate a market for service spending of USD235 Billion in 2016, so this spend will be approaching USD1000 Billion worldwide by 2020. Admittedly only around a third of these connections will be in business operations, two thirds will be in consumer areas. But the major market demand will be for services, where businesses employ external providers to design, install and operate their IOT systems. In reality this means processing the information available using Big Data techniques, to allow the client to get on with his own business, yet benefit from new technology. “IOT services are the real driver of value in IOT, and increasing attention is being focused on new services by end-user organisations and vendors,” said Jim Tully, vice president and analyst at Gartner.

So the attention Gartner speaks of can already be seen coming from the major automation suppliers, who are offering 24/7 services to analyse the data available from industrial internet based sensors, or from plant sensors connected over a VPN link via the Internet. The GE, Emerson and Yokogawa companies of this world see their customers using their products, but that these products have far more capability than the customer can absorb, so they need to be the supplier who provides the expansion and development services. Otherwise someone else will jump in and pinch the client’s attention, and the work.

We already have GE supporting their aero-engines with wear and condition monitoring systems, then extending this to their compressors and pumps on LNG liquefaction plants, with teams of GE people monitoring and reporting back to their clients. These teams might only be in three or four places around the world, all linked by the internet, but they can control their maintenance staff on site. These guys are directed to the machine or plant area that needs attention: and the whole contract is no longer measured in man hour charges, but in percentages of the plant output capability, when the equipment availability is maintained above X%. Similarly we see automation companies developing similar contracts, where they use the IOT inputs to enable plant performance improvements, so that a South African plant benefits from operational experience learned from a similarly linked up Canadian plant: and the payment is a proportion of the performance improvement.

There are opportunities also for specialists to develop expertise in their own specific areas, eg for machine manufacturers to link all their own machines worldwide, and be the leaders in offering the most efficient, reliable widget production machinery: but eventually these will be linked into a major supplier of widget production and business services.

The IOT benefit will come from collaboration and learning, matching patterns and experience from knowledge gained elsewhere: it needs AI, which could be ‘artificial intelligence’, or may be ‘Automated Intelligence’ – and it will come from Big Data, from multiple small sensors, interconnections, and collaboration!

Power and water for the developing world

In the Journal ‘South African Instrumentation and Control’ I provide a regular column  giving some commentary on the I&C scene as seen from Europe, wherever possible referring to items that could be of relevance to their South African readers. This was the story published in the May 2016 issue.

Some of the products created for the consumers in the developed world have had perhaps surprising benefits in the less well-developed countries too. One example has been the use of mobile phones throughout Africa, enabling the development of a simple banking and payment system.

But there are other engineering developments that are specifically designed for use by people living far from the normal facilities offered in an urban setting, and many universities, philanthropists and aid organisations are active in supporting these ideas. desolenatorOne such development idea from the UK is known as a ‘Desolenator’. This is a portable, solar-powered water purification system, designed to produce clean drinking water, starting from seawater, or polluted groundwater. The device is the size of a flat-screen TV and is equipped with rugged all-terrain wheels to assist transport: it can produce 15 litres of distilled drinking water per day, enough for one family to use for drinking and cooking.

The device uses a solar panel to produce electricity: a thin layer of the water to be treated flows over the photovoltaic surface, absorbing the heat also produced by the sun, and cooling the panels to improve their efficiency. The heated water passes into a boiler, powered by the electrical output from the panel: the steam is condensed to produce distilled water, giving up its latent heat to the incoming water flow. A small drain from the boiler discharges a concentrated dirty liquid stream.

The Desolenator device is claimed to have a life of 20 years, and requires little maintenance: it has recently won two Innovation Award prizes from the UK’s Institute of Engineering Technology.

Further harnessing solar power

Whilst the Desolenator shows one potential application of solar power, making electric power available from such a widely available source is a major objective in both the developed and under-developed world. This is particularly needed in areas without any other source of power at night, when it is dark, which is a slight problem. How can children do their homework, or study anything, without some light?

In the developed world there is a need to store the power generated by wind farms and solar farms, to make it available in periods of high demand, or when the wind or sun are not there. So there is a lot of research into storing large amounts of power. Hopefully some of this might spin-off and make smaller domestic or small village units available soon.

csm_Photoelektrochemie_219a069346At the Technical University of Vienna (TU Wien), current research is following the principles of photochemical cells, as used in nature, where plants absorb sunlight and store this energy chemically. The main problem was that quoted above, in relation to the Desolenator design, that at high temperatures, the efficiency of any current photovoltaic solar cell decreases. While the electrical energy produced by a solar cell can be used in an electrochemical cell to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, the energy efficiency of this process is limited, because of the high temperatures involved.

At TU Wien researchers have now developed new highly specialised materials, which form a photovoltaic that operates at a high temperature (400°C), so concentrated light beams can be used to produce a large energy output: currently achieving 920 mV. These cells use Perovskite metal oxide materials in the photovoltaic, which creates free charge carriers – electrons – that travel into the electrochemical cell. Here they ionise oxygen into negative ions, which can travel through a membrane, separating hydrogen and oxygen. Work continues to increase the power further and produce an industrial prototype, where a hydrogen cell would be used later to produce on-demand electrical power.

Other techniques

More conventional techniques, such as those having banks of rechargeable batteries, and even mechanical flywheel systems, are being installed in areas where short-term interruptions in supplies are common. But the spin-off from such university research will eventually lead to novel ideas to help the less-developed world as well.