Sensors Cross the Industrial-Consumer Divide

New, more capable and affordable sensors are being used in both industrial and consumer Internet of Things applications.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jul 05, 2016

Last month, I attended the Sensors Expo, a trade show held in Silicon Valley, which has grown in recent years in tandem with the use of Internet of Things technology. Registration was up at least 20 percent this year over the 2015 event, held in San Diego, according to organizers. From the looks of the badge pick-up line, which snaked through the convention center and lingered for nearly the entire day I spent at the conference, the organizers were caught unprepared for the growing interest.

Many vendors exhibiting on the expo floor were highlighting IoT applications for both industrial and consumer users. Among the most popular applications were those for smart cities, industrial automation, transportation, health care and fitness.

Advances in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) manufacturing and miniaturization are making sensors more capable and more affordable in ever-smaller footprints. What struck me is how sensors are being used for both industrial and consumer applications. There was a good deal of buzz about gas sensors at the event. Such sensors have traditionally been used only for industrial applications, but as they've become smaller and cheaper, they've also become more appealing to companies that make smart-home and fitness devices.

For example, a company called Synkera Technologies makes a sensor being used in a fitness device known as LEVL, which tracks the concentration of acetone in one's breath—an indication of how much fat one is burning. And manufacturers of smart-home devices are starting to integrate carbon monoxide sensors into modules that also track motion and temperature, and perhaps video cameras or other security sensors, to create an all-in-one smart-home hub. In addition, cities are looking to add air-quality monitoring to smart-city infrastructure projects, and that's becoming increasingly feasible by adding wireless gas sensors to modules that also track light, traffic and sound.

Additionally, strain sensors are making the jump from industrial to consumer applications. A good example of this is the SensoNODE High-Strain Sensor, from sensor manufacturer Parker Hannifin. It comes in a stretchable polymer form factor and was developed for such applications as monitoring the integrity of joints that connect pipes, such as those used at water-treatment plants. But I spoke with a Parker Hannifin representative, who told me that the sensor's stretchiness also makes it very appealing to companies developing fitness apparel that could track a user's movements. He could not name names, but said the company is in discussions with some apparel brands about integrating the strain sensor into upcoming products.

In the case of the SensoNODE High-Strain Sensor, it's the form factor and not necessarily lower cost or greater capability that make a sensor developed for industrial uses appealing to companies developing consumer applications.

There is clearly a great deal of promise in these new sensors, but they will not transform industrial or consumer devices overnight. Will Tu, VP of business development at DSP Concepts, a Silicon Valley firm that sells digital signal-processing technology (we recently wrote about them in this story, regarding a wearable called CoughAware), says that from his point of view, the sensor manufacturing industry has reached a point at which only so many companies can win clients in the coveted mobile phone business—even though, he notes, the latest Android operating system supports 32 different sensor types!

In order for advancements in sensor technology to gain a stronger foothold in both consumer and industrial IoT applications, Tu says, more systems integrators are needed to marry sensors with software, and to integrate them both into products that address market needs. Such needs might involve tracking the health of equipment within a factory, or helping consumers monitor the effectiveness of their exercise routines and diets. Either way, he adds, "OEMs are not necessarily good at tuning and calibrating sensors—that's really the black magic part."

That means there is a big opportunity for systems integrators in this market. There may also be an opportunity for companies that develop their own sensor-integration capabilities. It will be fascinating to watch the market develop.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of IoT Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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