Condition Monitoring: Are Sensors the Answer to the Macro-Challenges of 2021?

By Joel Davies -

Graeme Robertson, Business Development Director, CB Technology looks at the critical role sensors have in helping technology and digital infrastructure secure the recovery of major industries and the UK as a whole in the post-covid era.

As restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus continue to lift across the UK and abroad, many industries and sectors are still catching up with the knock-on effects created by the pandemic.

Labour shortages, a lack of raw materials and transport delays all have individual potential to cause major headaches for supply chains, services and the people who depend on them. Combined, they begin to create a far more serious challenge.

However, businesses are continuing to evaluate the lessons of the past 18 months with many innovating to create more resilient processes that help alleviate some, if not all, of these difficulties.

Technology and digital infrastructure, which have been paramount in supporting workers across a multitude of industries and sectors to benefit from remote or distributed work patterns to combat the virus, are now being used for purposes that stretch far beyond simply helping people operate out of spare rooms or from kitchen tables.

In particular, there has been a boom in technological developments across critical sectors where IoT growth is prominent including heavy industry, power system management, transportation, agriculture and health care. Increasingly, remote sensing and condition monitoring systems are playing a vital role at the heart of this evolution.

What are these systems and why are they important?

Traditionally, sensing technologies monitor the performance of infrastructure and systems that are often difficult to observe as a result of harsh operating conditions, the difficulty of access or hazardous working environments.

All manner of infrastructure and equipment benefits from this type of monitoring – from wind turbines, electricity substations and offshore platforms to rolling stock in railways, aircraft and cargo ships. Simply put, the role of sensing and monitoring systems is to make sure that an asset and its inbuilt technology is performing to the optimum capability.

The remote monitoring of these systems, whereby the need for physical onsite inspection of assets is negated, gives businesses and operators a variety of benefits. These include the identification and forewarning of potential failure, the reduction of expenditure based on the interrogation of operating data and, most importantly, the avoidance of unnecessary risk to an employee’s safety.

So how are these systems changing the world we live in today?

The acceleration of industrial monitoring and condition control technologies has been stimulated – in part, if not exclusively – as a response to the challenges of the ongoing pandemic.

Currently, many businesses and organisations are time and resource-constrained. With less hands-to-the-pump, increased pressure on commodities and rocketing lead times, they are having to find creative and often ingenious ways to continue operating efficiently. As a result, there is now an emerging need for systems that can support remote condition monitoring and increase data visibility.

Farmers taking a byte

Agricultural farming practices like growing crops and rearing animals for their produce traditionally require very hands-on and physically intensive approaches. With razor-thin margins and labour shortages a pre-existent challenge even before Covid, some agricultural businesses are revolutionising their operational approach to increasingly rely on digital infrastructure.

For example, while the idea of vertical farming (whereby crops are grown on top of each other instead of side by side) was coined in the early 20th century, it is only recently that its full potential has been realised thanks to the help of condition monitoring.

Sensors that accurately measure lighting, temperature, moisture, acidity and CO2 levels are being used to create artificially controlled ‘weather’ systems that replicate near-perfect climate conditions for optimum growth. As such, seasonal crops like strawberries, tomatoes and root vegetables can be grown year-round, at higher density, with far greater yield whilst using less energy.

This cloud-based approach to farming and the resulting control that sensing technology enables has the added benefit of reducing labour requirements thanks to the minimised need for physical interactions with crops. Importantly, it also ensures consistent produce quality and exact crop repeatability (i.e. your signature tomato product will always have the same taste, size and look) – vital to large scale farming practices and the supply chains that rely on them.

Smarter load bearing

Just as important as the food supply chain itself, the timely and efficient transport of goods and raw materials is an essential part of our day-to-day lives.

The latest figures released by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) suggest that the volume of rail freight travelling across Britain has now returned to pre-pandemic levels, with more than 4 billion net tonne-kilometres of cargo shipped via the network this summer. However, as part of the same report, operators complained of experiencing 8.27 minutes of delay per 100 train kilometres – 52.8% higher than 12 months ago.

Considering the average cost of transporting a single standard cargo container has surpassed $10,000 (£7,300) – four times higher than a year ago – the additional costs that these delays incur add to what is an already eye-watering sum. As a result, efforts to increase efficiencies and reduce risk are being made across all areas of freight infrastructure – supported by condition monitoring and sensing technologies.

Increasingly, we’re beginning to see sensors embedded into common industrial components used across rail freight-like bearings. Rolling stock, which can often be up to a mile in length, will have dozens of individual railroad cars each carrying cargo in closed or open-top containers. Each car will have at least two if not more ‘bogies’ – a framework that carries a wheel-set attached to the rolling stock – which is composed of an axle with bearings and a wheel at each end.

Embedding microelectronic sensing technology, that reports remotely, into these components allows data from a wide variety of asset parameters to be assessed – including vibration, temperature, lubrication state, and load. The insight these sensors provides can be translated into real-time operational benefits and, ultimately, financial return by reducing the need for manual and time-consuming checks and accelerating the process of actionable insights.

For example, freight operators can accurately determine the maximum load capacity of each car (particularly relevant for those carrying open-top containers filled with loose or raw materials) to optimise a shipment. Additionally, sensors help monitor railcar performance and operators can proactively take rolling stock out of commission for maintenance before the risk of failure and further costly delays.

The future application of sensing

Fundamentally, the application of condition control technologies is limited only by our imagination. As the macro-challenges of 2021 continue to evolve into next year and beyond, the economic, operational and safety benefits gleaned by remote sensing will only increase in importance.

Innovative groundbreaking developments like those touched on above underline the vast range and use of sensing technologies – not just for heavy industry but for the benefit of wider society. Areas far beyond farming and freight transport have much to gain including life sciences, our decarbonising industries and the UK’s push to join Europe’s latest ‘space race’.

Condition monitoring and remote sensing are helping turn big data into actions. The manufacturers behind the advances in these technologies will also play a crucial role in supporting the range of innovative applications they can help solve. As new skills, techniques and technological developments continue to emerge, companies at the bleeding edge of electronics engineering have the potential to help answer some of the biggest problems we face today.

Graeme Robertson is Sales and Business Development Director of CB Technology, Scotland’s largest independent complete manufacturing services provider.

From its base in Livingston, the company provides full turnkey solutions to a diverse mix of clients across a range of sectors including Energy, Industrial, Medical and Life Sciences, Communications, Instrumentation, Test & Measurement and Space.  

You can find more information about CB Technology on its website.

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