Quo vadis process automation? — Every 18 months, the processor performance of a chip doubles. This statistical observation, which is described with Moore’s Law, also promotes the developments in the sensor and measurement technology at a fast pace. The following statement should fuel the necessary discussion regarding the future of process automation for users and suppliers.
How knows the future? Famous poet Friedrich Schiller stated openly: “The future cannot be predicted.” And we must deal with it. We should prepare ourselves for what happens or at least what could happen. Also, the future of process automation is influenced by numerous trends and developments, which should be highlighted in this article.
Performance of Sensor Changes Drastically
Starting with the technical trends. Thereby, I want to specifically concentrate on the measurement technology and sensor. The users in the process industry primarily want robust sensors. Once installed, these should preferably fulfil their predetermined function over years or even decades; maintenance interval should be possibly long — if at all needed. Fulfilling these requirements depends on the mechanics and the materials used. Hence, high-alloy steels, ceramics and fluoroplastics are of high importance for the wetted components of sensors.
All this is certainly not new. A robust sensor is then extensively isolated from the process conditions which are often harsh in process technology. The “non-contact sensor” is ideal in this respect — but not always within reach. However, this trend led to microwaves, ultrasonic or optics in wide range of applications — e.g. in the measurement of filling level, flow rate or temperature. This trend is not actually new — the described development is since two or three decades.
Let me tell the third trend; this is actually new. It refers to the moving of the analytics from the laboratory to the process. “Inline” and “online” instead of sampling and waiting for the results of laboratory examination. This is always desired; this enables the optical techniques such as Raman-Spectroscopy. Now, the target molecule — e.g. the active substance in fermentation — can be measured directly by a laser beam through an aperture for the process and the information obtained is used for process control.
Please note that the measurement procedures are not new, but their applicability in online process control and even in the closed control loop is new. With this, I would like to conclude the topic of measurement technology and sensor and deal with digitalization. Actually I am already in the middle of it. Raman-Spectroscopy described above would not have been conceivable without technologies of semiconductor industries, without signal processors and software and would not at all have been at a cost level, which makes the wide use in “Process Control” possible.
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