A Glimpse Into the Future—Putting Sensors Into Perspective


For the past seven months, Sensors has run a column titled "Extreme Data," which discusses various software tools that integrate data acquired from sources within companies and facilities. The data come from a wide range of sources, from sensors to inventory management systems to human-machine interface software applications. Unlike most of the articles that appear in the magazine, "Extreme Data" does not deal solely with sensor systems. So why is it in the magazine? What is its raison d'être, the purpose that justifies its existence? The answer is that it provides a glimpse of the role of sensors in the not-to-distant future-a bigger picture of a smaller world. Let me explain.

The Big Picture
Sensors are now, and must be, part of a larger world. These devices have become so successful that they cannot be left to function as stand-alone systems. They are critical components of systems that we use every day, from your home's thermostat to building automation systems to motor vehicles (e.g., tire pressure monitoring and pollution-control systems). All use sensors. But the benefits of sensors cannot be realized unless they are combined with intelligence and tied into larger systems.

Sensor designers can no longer take a narrow view and focus on the efficacy of the device (the sensor) alone. They have to look at the bigger picture and make sure that their products can interact with and contribute to the efforts of broader collections of components that enhance the efficiency of processes—say a vehicle's performance, a manufacturing line's efficiency, or a factory's productivity.

Our world has gotten smaller. We cannot think solely in terms of hardware or software. These two elements must work together. A highly efficient piece of hardware is no longer enough. It must work with software to generate and distribute relevant, usable, and timely information. And information is the currency that buys what everyone wants—greater efficiency. It all boils down to a simple equation: Integration = Better Information = Greater Efficiency = Lower Costs = Greater Profits. And no matter what industry you work in, profits are the name of the game.

The history of sensors points out the path that we are on. Sensors first provided analog signals. The analog signals were then converted into digital signals. The digital signals were collected and fed into networks. At this point, analysis and presentation of sensor data grew in importance. The number of sensors in use grew because we realized that when the data they generated were combined with monitoring and control systems we could do more things, achieve greater efficiency, and contribute to better operational performance of larger and larger systems. The world got smaller.

We can no longer be satisfied with localized applications. Processes and operations—small and large—are all interconnected. When one machine in a factory line fails, the manufacturing line shuts down, the factory falls behind in its production, and the company's economic wellbeing is hurt. Because of this, not only is the machine operator concerned with the sensor's data but, relatively speaking, so are the people in the board room.

The Promise of Sensors
To deliver on the promise of the sensor, its data must be massaged into forms that can meet the needs of a wide variety of people, and that information must be distributed in a timely fashion all over the organization. This is where integration comes into play, and that is why the "Extreme Data" column is in Sensors magazine.

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