In the most basic and literal view, a pressure sensor is any device that reacts to a physical force in a manner that is of significance to someone. As an example, one of the simplest types of pressure sensor is the old analog weight scale that uses springs that are machined to exhibit known values of resistance. When a person stands on the scale, springs inside the scale are either depressed or stretched a certain distance. The springs apply force to a wheel that’s marked off in calibration units that represent weight values, i.e., pounds (lbs.), ounces (oz.), grams (g), milligrams (mg), etc. As the springs react to the pressure the wheel turns until the springs stabilize. Weight value is then read from the wheel, indicated by a marker line or needle.
You could consider a spring to be a bidirectional pressure sensor since it can react by either stretching or compressing. Springs in a car, a.k.a. shock absorbers, compress and decompress upon impact of a bump or pot hole. Depending on the type of car one is driving, the driver and passengers’ derrières may be secondary, readout devices.
Another similar example is the springs in a floating tremolo system on an electric guitar. The player can compress or stretch the springs, thereby lowering (downward hand pressure) and raising (applying pressure upwards), respectively, the pitch of the strings.
However, the pressure sensors electronics engineers and designers work with today are far more sophisticated, even in their simplest forms. Often, applications employing these components require accurate if not precision measurements such as medical, military, aeronautical, space, and environmental monitoring. And there is no shortage of parameters, specs, and concerns involved in the proper use of pressure sensors
Pressure Sensor Apps and Challenges
One could take pressure sensors as being the most fundamental of sensor components. Currently, what are the most challenging applications for pressure sensors in general?
Jim Knutti, President and CEO of Acuity, Inc., believes consumer markets are the latest “shiny new thing” in the pressure sensor business. But, according to Jim, “we have seen this herd mentality in the past, chasing the latest “killer app” – engine control, medical disposables, tire pressures, etc. And the MEMS industry in general has had this affliction – witness the optical MEMS “era”. These as well as the mobile products are in the phase where the challenges become evolutionary and the space has a few dominant leaders and a lot of wannabes with limited prospects.”
Jim views the “real challenges” as “opportunities in applications that are not fully identified, where the technology can be leveraged to create new markets like the aforementioned applications were a number of years ago. We supplied tire sensors in the early 80s, market matured 15 years later, we supplied the first mobile pressure sensors for athletic monitors, bicycles, and ski-monitors in the early 1990s. Most of these markets took several years to develop into strong applications with a few dominant suppliers in each specialty.”
Jim claims, “I see the most challenges in emerging segments with an initial teaching sub-segment with a high value added. Examples would be in automated manufacturing, process engineering and energy efficiency controls.”
Greg Montrose, Marketing Manager at American Sensor Technologies, Inc. sees materials for pressure-sensor manufacture, increasing pressure levels that need to be measured, and accuracy levels as the prime sources for concern. “There is a limit to the types of materials from which many manufacturers can manufacture a pressure sensing element, leading to difficulty with the measurement of corrosive liquids and gases”, he states. “Typically, isolating diaphragms are incorporated into systems, but the added cost and size makes it challenging for system integrators to incorporate pressure transducers.”
Greg points out that, “ultra-high pressures are challenging for many pressure sensor materials as the strain required to generate an output signal can be so great that it is close to the yield point in the metal. The number of sensor manufacturers drops off at 10,000 PSI, with even fewer capable of producing pressure sensors above 30,000 psi.”
He also points to “semiconductor processing as becoming more and more specialized and competitive. With decreases in electronic component cost and the reduction in overall component sizes, sensors need to be more accurate and reliable than ever before.”
Eric Anderson, Honeywell’s Pressure and Magnetic Sensors Product Line Manager, fingers commercial air data, low-speed air data, and industrial process measurement as prime challengers Straying a bit, Honeywell Sensing and Control’s Senior Global Product Marketing Manager, Ketan Mehta adds matching product performance with customer price targets, aerospace/military, barometric pressure sensing, and both high- and low-pressure apps as being star contenders.
Eric Anderson states, “Pressure sensors used in providing air data for commercial aircraft need tight accuracy and extreme stability to meet the needs of the customer over the 20-year life of an aircraft. Low speed air data, and low altitude measurements, require extremely precise measurement of pressure changes not conducive to long term stability or robust design
On the industrial-process side, Eric says, “the media isolated sensors used in industrial process measurement take a lot of punishment and require a lot of support equipment to properly function. There is room for improvement here.”
Ketan Mehta singles out the pressure sensors used for refrigeration, oxygen delivery, cabin pressure, fuel management and propulsion, and optics in aerospace/military apps. Ketan adds, “Applications are seeing an extended range of operating temperature requirements. Customers are asking for +175ºC at the upper limit, as compared to the past, when +125ºC was usual.”
“Measuring low pressures while maintaining sensor performance, like stability, accuracy, resolution” Mehta says, “and applications involving high pressure, high temperature with corrosive media, such as down-hole oil drilling, for example.”
A Pattern Forming
Although the applications considered as the most challenging are diverse amongst the front liners, there is a common thread. That commonality is the market’s entering the realm of upper and lower extremes, requiring pressure sensors to handle both higher and lower pressures, temperatures, and other parameters.
Similarly, Nader Najafi, President and CEO of Integrated Sensing Systems Inc., takes a slight application detour, “For implantable medical devices biocompatibility is an important issue.” Then pointing to expanding parameters, Nader states, “many emerging industrial applications also demand better corrosion resistant features.”
Getting straight to the point, Dale Gee, Senior Product Manager at GE, Measurement & Control, believes the three most challenging applications for pressure sensors in general are of the low-pressure, on engine/injection control pressure (ICP), and down-hole drilling variety. Equally direct, yet adhering to the pattern of application divergence, Scott Dalgleish, Chief Operating Officer at Phase IV Engineering claims intrinsically safe, truly-wireless (no wired power to the sensor), and miniature embedded sensor applications as the current gauntlets for pressure sensors. And diverging a bit more, the folks at Sensor Platforms Inc. cite indoor navigation, sports training/fitness monitoring, and medical markets as offering the most challenges.
Kyle Horsman, Product Specialist at TURCK Inc. sums things up nicely while affirming the pattern of diverse apps faced with similar extremes. “The biggest application challenge that we see issues with are those in which pressure spikes occur. Extreme temperatures, such as high heat or even steam, along with possible condensation or even freezing conditions seem to be a constant headache.” Kyle continues, “The third is a little broader, but that is in relation to the media being sensed itself. This could be due to a corrosive composition, the possibility for debris or even the way it heats and cools.”
Summary of Sorts
From part one of the survey, pressure-sensor makers cite a variety of applications as presenting the most challenges:
- Consumer markets
- Automated manufacturing
- Process engineering
- Energy-efficiency controls
- Sensor materials
- Ultra-high and -low pressure measurement
- Sensor accuracy
- Aircraft data, military, and aerospace
- Medical devices
- Intrinsically safe
- True-wireless sensing
- Embedded sensors
The one thing they all seem to agree on is that parameters of pressure-sensor capabilities are expanding. Higher and lower extremes of pressure need to be measured while the components need to withstand the upper and lower extremes of temperature and other environmental factors.
In part two, we look at what the makers see as the three biggest markets for pressure sensors. You may or may not be surprised, but either way, let’s see if you agree. ~MD
What’s Hot Now And For How Long?
Recapping part one, the major players in the pressure-sensor market laid out what they believe are the most challenging applications for their wares:
- Automated manufacturing
- Process engineering
- Energy-efficiency controls
- Sensor materials
- Ultra-high and ultra-low pressure
- Sensor accuracy
- Aircraft data, military, and aerospace
- Medical devices
- Intrinsically safe
- True-wireless sensing
- Embedded sensors
In what follows, the makers point out which applications are currently the most active as well as predicting their longevity.
What’s Hot Right Now?
In the consumer markets, analysts consistently tend to focus on mobile products, i.e., smartphones, tablets, etc., and automobiles as the biggest drivers of financial growth. Sensors of all types, but particularly pressure components, are applicable to every market from the testing stages to deployment in the end products. At this point in time, what do the players see as the three biggest markets for pressure sensors?
Acuity’s Jim Knutti believes “today’s growth markets are likely not the ones we will see emerging five to 10 years from now; history will likely repeat itself. In the consumer space, I would expect to see new applications of pressure sensors in special purpose system level products¾sensor content enabling, but not the dominant cost. Some likely consumer areas are in personal assistants, energy efficient appliances and health monitoring.” Leaning a bit with the analysts, however, American Sensor Technologies’ Marketing Manager Greg Montrose sees the “automotive, industrial, and oil/gas sectors controlling a large market for pressure sensors.”
Eric Anderson at Honeywell also sides with the analysts. He points to handheld devices, industrial pressure transducers, and down-hole oil and gas applications. But picking up the other end, his colleague at Honeywell, Sr. Global Product Marketing Manager Ketan Mehta points to the medical and HVAC sectors.
According to President & CEO of Integrated Sensing Systems Nader Najafi, the three biggest markets for pressure sensors at this point time are “health care measurements on mobile phones, implantable wireless sensors, and disposable pressure sensors for processing applications.” Overall, the focus here is predominantly medical; an area many may consider fertile territory based on national and international health statistics.
GE Senior Product Manager Dale Gee wastes no time stating, “In terms of volume, mobile, MAP, and oil pressure applications.” That’s more votes for the automotive and consumer arenas. Phase IV Engineering’s Chief Operating Officer Scott Dalgleish also points to oil and gas, singling out fracking as the prime app and, going hand-in-hand with that, the automobile market. Scott also adds, “Upgrading existing industrial equipment for condition-based maintenance monitoring.”
The folks at Sensor Platforms Inc. cite medical, automotive, and industrial as currently being the biggest markets for pressure sensors.
Kyle Horsman, Product Specialist at TURCK, Inc. gets the final word here. “As the global demand is at an all-time high, oil and gas applications stand at the forefront in my eyes. Mobile equipment industries are constantly finding new ways to incorporate pressure measurement into their designs and factory automation continues to use an incredible amount of pressure sensors.”
The pressure-sensor makers are clear as to what are the current hot markets for pressure sensors. According to the respondents, these are the top three:
- Oil and gas
This does not negate the power of consumer and portable-products applications, which are consistent in their ups, and the occasional downs. We can be sure that as the designers get more creative, pressure sensors will find themselves in some unique positions. And that’s stated very conservatively.
The Long And Winding Load
Okay, it stands to reason that if you ask what’s hot, the next logical question to ask is for how long? In other words, how much longer can we expect these markets to provide pressure-sensor makers viable opportunities for innovation?
“I expect new segments to keep emerging indefinitely that will require the sensors suppliers to extend capabilities in performance, cost, compatibility and special functions”, says Jim Knutti. “Pressure sensing is not a single device product; the opportunities are to expand in areas that benefit from special capabilities.”
Greg Montrose is also optimistic, stating “There is always opportunity for innovation with pressure sensors and these markets will not slow down with opportunities. If you break down the components of a pressure-sensor-process connection, pressure range, output signal, electrical connection, approval, material, and accuracy, several variables and combinations will still be in demand by someone. New fuels, processes, and efficiency requirements all play crucial roles for pressure sensor innovation.”
Honeywell’s Eric Anderson agrees, he says “Indefinitely, there is always room for improvement, whether that is in size, cost, performance, reliability, etc., it is a billion-dollar market and growing, someone is going to invest to capture it.” While colleague Ketan Mehta affirms, “For a long time; there will be a need for technology development to support new legislative, regulatory, engineering requirements, safety, etc. There will be a need to ensure the right price point is achieved, as well.”
Asked the question, how much longer will these markets provide opportunities for profitable innovation, Nader Najafi and Sensor Platforms agree on “at least 10 years”, while Scott Dalgleish states definitely “20 years.”
Dale Gee draws a somewhat different landscape on the canvas. He indicates that “MAP and oil pressure are pretty mature, so not there’s much left to innovate on.” Interestingly, he claims “Mobile is new and will drive costs and size requirements down to the point where MEMS may no longer be a viable technology in two to three years.”
In terms of MEMS, it will be interesting to see, as per Dale’s observation, if MEMS technology can go the distance cost wise. Technology wise, I believe it has enough offer to offset some of the costs, which should go down over time. It may just take a while, we just don’t know how long.
On this topic, TURCK’s Kyle Horsman again sums things up nicely. “There will always be a need for pressure measurement in a wide variety of industries. With the development of new products and processes, there also needs to be innovation with the tools used within those systems. Pending anything catastrophic, I expect to continue seeing new developments being made for pressure sensing.”
The Best Is Yet To Come
There are a few things to ponder here. In the next part of the survey, we ask the players to investigate the future and pinpoint the greatest opportunities for growth in the pressure-sensor game. Predictions are always fun, because they can be unnerving at times. We shall see. ~MD
In part two, the pressure-sensor makers outlined the current hottest markets for pressure sensors with the top three being
- Oil and gas
It easily triggers the solutions question. Aside from outsourcing their manufacturing abroad, what should pressure-sensor makers be doing to stay effective, profitable, and competitive in the markets?
Acuity's CEO Jim Knutti logically acknowledges, "It is all about adding value and looking at new segments, not following the herd and providing support to the new segments." What can be viewed as an enhancement, or value-added extension of Jim's forecast, AST's Greg Montrose values the fine art of listening. He states, "Employees, suppliers, and customers provide valuable input to meet the stated goals above. Bringing the three factors together creates a cost-effective product that meets price and performance requirements." In other words, listen to your most valuable assets.
Extending functionality to existing components could be a likely key to market sustainability as well. "We are still living in a world that is driven by making things smarter, faster, smaller and cheaper", says TURCK's Kyle Horsman. "Besides re-inventing current products and technologies to incorporate some of those dynamics, there needs to be some R&D work to see if there might be a new way of interpreting pressure." Along the same lines, Scott Dalgleish at Phase IV Engineering claims, "Miniaturize and develop complete, low power pressure sensors." And Integrated Sensing Systems' Nader Najafi concurs, "Add new features and approach new applications."
Honeywell's Ketan Mehta grabs the issue from the manufacturing end of things. "Pressure sensor manufacturers need to have the right manufacturing strategy to support customer needs, as well as stay on top of technology development, and agency requirement changes, ensuring that sensor technology continues to evolve to support market requirements." And, also at Honeywell, Eric Anderson sees building on the existing foundation as the way to go. He states, "Keep investigating new core technology, new pressure sensing elements that can provide the benefits of the current generation of sensors with measurable improvements in size and lower cost. Also, add value at the transducer / transceiver level with faster logic, new compensation mechanisms and improved power consumption."
Bring It On Home
The word "outsourcing", not so much the concept, can leave a bitter taste in some folks' mouths, particularly when it refers to sending work out of the United States (US) to foreign shores, Asia in particular. Most outsourcing is manufacturing work, which is costlier in the US due to higher wage regulation as well as environmental and bureaucratic mandates that increase the manufacturing costs.
Be that as it may, the folks at Sensor Platforms Inc. say we should bring it back home. The company says what pressure-sensor makers should be doing to stay effective, profitable, and competitive in aforementioned current markets is twofold. First, "Packaging and interconnects represent up to 60% of the cost of sensor development/manufacturing. Innovative, cost effective package development would be a good start." And second, "Bring manufacturing — particularly backend — back to the US. Costs are becoming more competitive and companies will have more control and oversight of process." We can safely assume that overall product quality will improve as well.
The $64,000 Question
With insights in mind, we approach the penultimate question. It's always a crapshoot trying to predict any financial market, which can be tipped in any direction due to anything from a severe weather pattern to unexpected geopolitical events. Hypothetically, assuming all things remain as they are now, what are the emerging applications and markets that will provide pressure-sensor makers the greatest room for both innovation and economic growth within in the next five to 10 years?
Honeywell's Eric Anderson directly cites, "Handheld devices, there's lots of opportunity to use pressure sensors in those devices once the tech is small and cheap enough. Also, process control; pressure will continue to be a big risk mitigator for the process control market." His colleague Ketan Mehta adds, "Disposable sensors, use once and done. Improved performance on sensors, i.e., energy efficiency at component level, alternative fuels and associated compatibility, and remote monitoring, wireless, and Ethernet, i.e., medical applications that include real time- data monitoring and equipment-health monitoring."
Greg Montrose at AST feels, and rightfully so, that this and the ultimate question are tough issues to address. On the question at hand he says that, "The industrial market continues to show innovation. Customers continue to replace manual gauges with pressure sensors to continuously monitor and remotely monitor pressure and temperature. Many developments in the industrial market then expand into automotive in lower cost assemblies or oil and gas in higher accuracy and hazardous area certified products."
Nader Najafi at Integrated Sensing Systems Inc. sees the health/medical market as the next frontier to tame. He forecasts a "reduction of the cost of health care by providing both mobile and home monitoring sensing" as being important areas.
Scott Dalgleish confidently cites "fracking (oil and gas), automotive, condition-based maintenance (industrial wireless), lower-power pressure sensors, and long battery life or battery-free wireless sensors" as the next spotlight candidates.
"I would imagine that the oil boom that is still occurring in North Dakota will continue to drive new innovation for the oil and gas markets", TURCK's Kyle Horsman muses. "The automotive industries are still a vital part of the US economy and will continue to drive the needs for pressure sensors. Industries are evolving daily, along with the innovations required for their needs. Those new discoveries should lead to a widespread development of products and processes."
Okay, we have one of the most delicate issues — where is the market headed? — addressed with a modicum of diversity. When we wrap up the survey, we broach the equally tricky question: What countries and areas within them do you see innovation and future growth happening? ~MD
What countries will deliver future innovation and growth opportunities for pressure sensors?
For the final leg of this survey we’ll be doing some virtual traveling, both in location and into the not-so-far future. In parts one, two, and three of this saga, the pressure sensor makers have pinpointed what are the current hottest categories for innovation and growth as well how long they feel these areas will remain hot. Now they answer what some referred to as the hardest question to answer: what countries and areas within them do you see this innovation and future growth happening?
Very likely, if we asked the “person on the street” the most common response would be China or some other Asian country. Off the top, based on recent environmental reports, China may offer great opportunities for makers of air-quality sensors. But let’s stick with what the people in the trenches say.
“This is a tough question”, says Greg Montrose at American Sensor Technologies. “The industrial market continues to show innovation. Customers continue to replace manual gauges with pressure sensors to continuously monitor and remotely monitor pressure and temperature. Many developments in the industrial market then expand into automotive in lower cost assemblies or oil and gas in higher accuracy and hazardous area certified products.” He concludes, “The US continues to provide top quality education for engineers, thus continuing innovation. Engineers are coming out of school with a greater overall understanding of electromechanical devices, but many times must rely on manufacturers for their expertise. We feel that we are positioned well to support innovation in each market segment with our manufacturing and sales support located in the US.”
Eric Anderson at Honeywell looks to “China and India for process control and where products are manufactured” and back to the “USA and Europe for product design and consumption.” His Honeywell colleague Ketan Mehta partially concurs, citing “Asia Pacific for demand generation to support manufacturing operations” and “design activities will be carried out globally. We see that trend continuing to grow.”
“World-wide” says Acuity Micro’s Jim Knutti, taking the global route, “a lot of the segmented sensor industry is in Europe, but we are seeing a number of new specialty applications in the US as well.”
Nader Najafi at Integrated Sensing Systems also has the US on the radar screen, pointing directly to “Western Europe and North America.” Half in the same ballpark, Dale Gee at GE/Nova Sensor confidently cites “China and the US.” And Scott Dalgleish at Phase IV Engineering also sees growth “starting in the United States”.
The folks at Sensor Platforms take a somewhat different view. They foresee innovation and future growth happening in, naturally “Asia”, but add “South America and possible innovation from the Middle East; funding for innovation at least.” The funding from the Middle East might be possibility to watch for.
Overall though, judging by the responses, there is growing confidence in development and some manufacturing returning to US shores. That could be indicative of many factors, some of which may be political. But this could be good news for TURCK’s Kyle Horsman. He says, “It may be a very optimistic thought, but I would really like to believe that this [innovation and growth] can be driven within the United States. There is an amazing pool of knowledge and talents within this country to help drive innovation and keep us in the front of new technology development.”
Things look good now and hopefully will continue. Question, do you agree? ~MD
About the author
Mat Dirjish is the Executive Editor of Sensors magazine. Before coming on board, he covered the test and measurement and embedded systems market for Electronic Products Magazine, after which he spent thirteen years covering the electronic components market for EE Product News and Electronic Design magazines. He also has an extensive background in high-end audio/video design, modification, servicing, and installation.