Sensors get smarter and simpler at the same time

DN Staff

April 19, 1999

4 Min Read
Sensors get smarter and simpler at the same time

Bob Fayfield is passionate about technology and pleasing customers. But he likes to spoil customers by delivering smart, simple-to-use products at the right price.

Design News: What's new in sensing technology?

Bob Fayfield: A large percentage of new presence sensors incorporate microprocessors, primarily for help in setup, but also to provide additional operating features. Once the decision is made to design an intelligent sensor, that is, to include a microprocessor, there are opportunities to make multiple small improvements such as operator feedback, automatic self-calibration, and certain timing and logic functions that otherwise would need to be done using PLC or PC overhead. I say small improvements, because even without microprocessors sensors are already viewed by most users as reliable and quite easy to use.

The job of the "smart-sensor" designer, therefore, is not to add features for their own sake, but to add only those functions that are truly useful to the end customer, who is often not experienced in sensor technology. We all know that we don't use most of the functions of, for instance, our VCRs. We put up with their complexity either because we have plenty of time to read the manuals and tinker with the controls, or because we just don't care if we use them or not. Contrast this with the plight of the factory-floor engineer for whom setup time costs hundreds of dollars per hour, and downtime thousands. You then realize that we must limit our "gee-whiz" features to those functions that work in the background, invisible to the operator, or that are, at the very least, totally intuitive.

Q: What are obstacles to growing the sensing market in terms of technology?

A: To really grow the market, and not just replace old designs with new, manufacturers must find ways to design sensors with vastly reduced costs. This does not mean the designer must take half the cost out of a sensor while leaving its performance intact. Rather, manufacturers should pursue growth areas where a sensor with reduced (but satisfactory) performance can replace, for example, a mechanical switch. There are also opportunities to use very inexpensive sensors in applications where no sensing is affordable until prices drop significantly. We have seen this happen with low-cost sensors being designed into automobiles, office machinery, and even home appliances. There is potential for it to happen on the factory floor.

Q: Are there pricing issues relative to advanced sensing technology?

A: Sensors with built-in intelligence, such as photoelectric sensors that learn their environment at the push of a button, are very close to reaching price parity with their older "screwdriver-adjusted" counterparts. One of our most popular sensor families, for example, now has smart-sensor equivalents for all older models, at exactly the same prices.

Q: What do customers need to know to implement these technologies?

A: At their worst, the newest sensor technologies require the customer to read an instruction sheet, and to get used to programming sensors the way one programs a digital alarm clock. This is not terribly difficult, but certainly aggravating when there are different clock brands at every hotel. But, at their best, sensors will be totally intuitive to program. My directive to our design engineers is to always work toward designing products that can be sold with no instruction sheet included.

Q: Can you give us a sneak preview of some new sensor technology developments?

A: Sensors are a surprisingly mature class of electronic products, so over the next few years customers will see refinement rather than revolution. Most sensor manufacturers are following the design principle of making "smaller-better-faster-cheaper" versions of existing products. Within the "better" category, you can expect more laser-based sensors, and many bus-compatible products, along with additional abilities for the sensors to learn and adapt to their environment.

Bob Fayfield founded Banner Engineering Corp. in 1966 with $10,000 in borrowed capital. Today, this Minnesota-based developer and producer of more than 12,000 different photoelectric sensors has net sales of more than $100 million. He also co-founded Turck, Inc., a magnetic sensor company with sales of more than $50 million and InterlinkBT, one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of factory-floor bus systems. Last year, Fayfield was named the National Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He remains an active engineer and product designer with 14 patents and hundreds of product designs to his credit.

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