May the force be with you: Force sensing keeps factories running, product quality high

As sensor technology increasingly moves into industrial environments, much of the buzz is around camera sensors for cutting-edge computer vision applications, but there are other kinds of sensors in play in factories that are just as important to ensuring production quality.

While some sensors are more focused on monitoring equipment or measuring environmental conditions around a manufacturing process, force sensors measure mechanical forces occurring in the equipment and processes, and the products being manufactured. They measure things like load, tension, resistance, weight or total pressure applied. By employing this kind of sensing technology, manufacturers can monitor the health of their equipment and improve quality assurance for their products.

“Testing things by applying a force to them is super common,” said Keith Skidmore, engineer and regional sales director at Interface Force Measurement Solutions, based in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Many products in lots of industries get tested this way, from aerospace to automotive, through to consumer goods. Chairs, furniture, mattresses, ladders–basically, anything that's being manufactured, there can be a desire to figure out how strong the various parts of those products are.”

Interface provides the sensors, as well as the interface between the force sensors and the customer’s network and into the cloud. Industrial customers do not even necessarily need to know what they are looking for, but can gather data that can help in a variety of ways, such as in an instance where a defect is found in a part, and a recall may need to be issued.

“They can monitor all of the conditions during the process, and if something goes wrong, you can go back and look at the data for analysis and figure out what went wrong and when it happened,” Skidmore said. “This can help you figure out if you need to do a recall. If you find out something went wrong on Tuesday, for example, you know which parts were affected.”

Furthermore, as predictive maintenance is becoming more of a must-have across many industries, force sensors also can be used to monitor factory equipment for wear and tear. A manufacturer can be alerted if a piece of equipment has begun applying a lower amount of pressure it is supposed to apply, for example. 

“Maybe it’s fine for now, but you can see you are probably going to have to replace the machine three months from now,” Skidmore said.

Interface has supplied various types of force sensors to companies like Boeing, Ford, Airbus, General Motors, NASA and others. Ideally, these sensors are incorporated early on, as part of the design of a piece of manufacturing equipment, but that does not always happen, Skidmore said.

Increasingly, wireless is becoming the type of connectivity used to transfer force sensor data to the cloud. Though Interface can work with industrial clients to set up this connectivity, it is starting to look more into partnerships with providers of wireless connectivity

“We can provide connections into the customer’s network, and we do have some solutions that go to the cloud, and we can provide hosting for that, although it's not really not the preferred path because we're not really that company,” Skidmore said. “We have a couple of companies we are talking to about partnering with where you can imagine getting a whole factory of sensors connected, and getting all this data going up to the cloud. We don't necessarily want to be those people. We want to be the sensor guys supplying our force sensors into that network.”