Industry Article

5 Reasons Why Sensors Are Crucial For Modern Manufacturing

October 03, 2023 by Eric Whitley, L2L

Data has become the currency that enables operational excellence. Sensors are the key links, acting as the eyes and ears of modern manufacturing units by providing real-time data on machine performance.

Manufacturing has come a long way from the clunky gears and levers of traditional production. Today, we're in an era where manufacturing systems are a complex blend of mechanical engineering and data science.

Sensors are the key links in this intricate setup, acting as the eyes and ears of modern manufacturing units by providing real-time data on machine performance. Let's dive deep into why sensors are not just beneficial but essential in today's manufacturing landscape.


The Importance of Real-Time Data

For Industry 4.0, real-time data has become the currency of operational excellence. Connected worker platforms amplify the value of real-time data by integrating it into a centralized system. Various stakeholders, from machine operators to top-level management, can access and act upon the data.

It's not just about collecting data anymore — it's about collecting it in real time and making it actionable within an instant.

This represents a paradigm shift from the days when data was something you hoarded all week, only to analyze it during a Monday morning meeting for future decision-making. Now, you can take advantage of immediate feedback loops enabled by connected worker platforms that allow for on-the-spot adjustments.

The importance of real-time data extends across various facets of manufacturing, from quality control and equipment monitoring to the execution of complex tasks. These tasks often require a level of precision and timing that only immediate, actionable data can provide.


Condition monitoring sensors

Figure 1. Example of a condition monitoring sensor. Image used courtesy of Balluff


Reason 1: Monitoring Equipment

Monitoring equipment is no longer a matter of routine checks and reactive maintenance. With sensors, we've moved into the realm of predictive and even prescriptive maintenance. Vibration sensors, temperature monitors, and acoustic sensors can predict mechanical wear and tear, allowing you to schedule maintenance before a catastrophic failure occurs.

These sensors work by continuously monitoring various parameters like vibration frequencies, temperature variations, and acoustic patterns. This data is then fed into machine learning algorithms that can predict when a machine part is likely to fail. Real-time monitoring not only prevents downtime but optimizes machine performance and extends asset life.

Consider this example of a CNC machine in a metal fabrication unit. By using a combination of temperature and vibration sensors, the unit could predict spindle failures up to two weeks in advance, reducing unplanned downtime by 60%.

If you're still relying on calendar-based maintenance, it's time to upgrade. Start with critical assets and gradually expand your sensor-based monitoring system. Make sure to integrate it with your Manufacturing Execution System (MES) for seamless data flow and analytics.


Reason 2: Quality Control

Quality control has evolved from a post-production activity to an integrated part of the manufacturing process. With real-time sensors like vision systems, laser scanners, and spectrometers, you can achieve near-perfect inspection rates.

These sensors can identify defects ranging from dimensional inaccuracies to material inconsistencies. For example, vision systems use high-resolution cameras coupled with machine learning algorithms to identify even the most minute defects.

For example, in a semiconductor manufacturing unit, the implementation of laser scanning sensors reduced the defect rate by 40%. This not only improved product quality but also significantly reduced waste.

Integrate real-time quality control sensors into your production line, but remember — the sensor is only as good as the algorithm behind it. Invest in quality software and regular calibration.


A force torque sensor on a robot

Figure 2. Example of a force-torque sensor on a robot arm. Image used courtesy of Robotiq


Reason 3: Facilitating Complex Tasks

Complex manufacturing tasks, such as multi-axis machining or additive manufacturing, require a level of precision that's humanly impossible. Sensors provide the feedback loop for real-time adjustments, making these tasks feasible and efficient.

Force-torque sensors in robotic arms, for instance, ensure that the arms are applying the right amount of pressure during assembly. Similarly, optical sensors in 3D printers adjust the laser's focus in real time, ensuring high-resolution outputs.

Force-torque sensors enabled robotic arms in an aerospace manufacturing unit to assemble turbine blades with a precision of 0.01 mm, something unachievable by human operators.

When implementing sensors for complex tasks, precision is key. Opt for high-resolution sensors and make sure they are compatible with your existing systems. Also, invest in training your team to interpret and act on the sensor data.


Reason 4: Safety Measures

Safety in manufacturing has evolved from being reactive to proactive, and we owe that to sensors in many ways. Reactive safety measures require manufacturers to respond to incidents after they occur, while proactive safety measures aim to prevent incidents from happening in the first place through predictive analysis and monitoring.

Gas sensors, infrared cameras, and even wearable sensors for workers are making workplaces safer than ever. These sensors continuously monitor environmental conditions and machine operations. For example, gas sensors can detect hazardous leaks, and infrared cameras can identify hot spots in electrical systems.

The implementation of gas sensors reduced hazardous incidents by 70% in a chemical manufacturing plant, as they could detect gas leaks well before they reached critical levels.

Safety sensors should be non-negotiable in any manufacturing setup. Prioritize them based on the risk profile of your operations and make sure you integrate them into your emergency response protocols.


A worker using a backpack mounted wearable safety sensor

Figure 3. Example of a wearable safety sensor package. Image used courtesy of Strongarm Technologies


Reason 5: Data-Driven Insights

Data-driven insights are the pinnacle of modern manufacturing. Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled sensors take this a step further by making this data instantly actionable.

These sensors feed data into analytics platforms that can make real-time decisions. For example, organizations can optimize energy consumption patterns based on real-time machine performance data.

A food processing unit used IoT sensors to monitor the temperature and humidity in their storage units. They used this data to dynamically adjust the HVAC settings, reducing energy costs by 20%.

If you're not already harnessing the power of IoT in your manufacturing operations, start now. But remember, data security is paramount: make sure your IoT network is secure to prevent any potential breaches.


Challenges and Solutions

Implementing sensors in a manufacturing environment is not without its challenges. From data security to sensor calibration, there are several hurdles to overcome:

  • Sensor drift: Over time, sensors can lose accuracy. Regular calibration should be part of your maintenance schedule.
  • Data security: A compromised sensor can bring down an entire operation. Invest in multi-layered cybersecurity measures, including data encryption and secure access controls.
  • Integration issues: Sensors from different manufacturers often have compatibility issues. Opt for sensors that comply with industry standards like OPC-UA to ensure seamless integration.

While challenges exist, they are far from being insurmountable. Proper planning and following best practices will enable you to leverage the full potential of sensor technology.


An array of sensors on a conveyor line

Figure 4. Sensors on a conveyor line. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


The Future of Sensor Technology

As we stand on the threshold of a new technological era, the buzz is all about quantum sensors and edge computing. They're the next logical steps in the evolution of sensor technology.

Quantum sensors, for instance, offer unprecedented sensitivity and accuracy, opening doors to applications we've only dreamed of. Edge computing allows for quicker data processing right where it's generated, reducing latency and enhancing real-time capabilities.

The endgame, however, remains the same: to derive actionable insights that can be immediately applied to improve operational efficiency and product quality. These new technologies should serve to enhance our existing systems, making them more robust and responsive, rather than being an end in themselves.

Sensors have evolved from mere data collectors to become the cornerstone of modern manufacturing. They're the eyes and ears of the factory floor, constantly feeding the data ecosystem.

If you're not already integrating advanced sensor technology into your manufacturing processes, you're actively moving backward. The future is sensor-driven, and it's time to get on board or risk being left behind the competition.