Embedded Sensors -
Small dimensions, big differences

By: Jim Pinto - JimPinto.com
Industry Analyst, Technology Futurist

Outline of the speech presented at

Swagelok Technology Summit
Houston, TX. USA
14 & 15 November 2006

Most sensors used today are large, expensive and dumb. Soon MEMS and Nanotechnology will yield tiny, low cost, low power sensors, scattered around to measure just about everything. Wireless sensor networks will provide vast arrays of real-time, remote interaction with the physical world. Significant new technology will help optimize widely spread processes and provide vast productivity and quality improvements in process systems.

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Change - the only constant

  • Change is occurring faster than ever before
  • Caused primarily by technology advances
  • The technology treadmill

Process automation & controls

  • We moved during the last 50 years
    • From pneumatic controls (some still around)
    • To electronics (vacuum tubes) to transistors to integrated circuits
    • Direct Digital Controls (DDC) gave way to Distributed Control Systems (DCS)
    • Now we have networked PC-based control systems

Discrete Automation

  • Contactors relays and motor controls became programmable logic controllers offering better alternatives for control
  • PLCs are now a commodity business
  • Software
    • Hard-wired relay-ladder-logic became programmable
    • Programmable via PC software
    • Embedded software

New age connectivity

  • Every digital and analog I/O point is getting "connected"
  • Eliminating the old "islands of automation"
  • Introducing visions of vast arrays of interconnected "appliances"

Smart "appliances"

  • Information needed from each product
    • History, part number, where purchased, when installed, by who, key characteristics, specifications, operating instructions, diagnostics, availability of spares, replacement alternatives, repair instructions, etc.
  • In the past, this information would be in printed documentation, or with trained experts
  • In the future, the I/O appliance itself will contain all of the required "knowledge", embedded within it and always accessible

Technology Moves on

  • Today large, expensive and dumb
    • Sensors lack intelligence - they simply provide measurements for remote processing
  • Tomorrow tiny, cheap and smart
    • MEMS and Nanotechnology will yield tiny, low cost, low power sensors
    • Tiny is important scattered around to measure just about everything that you can imagine
    • Low power won't need to carry a large battery
    • Low-cost numbers required will be enormous

Automation inflection points

  • Wireless sensors everywhere
  • MEMS - Microelectromechanical systems
  • NEMS - Nano Electromechanical systems
  • Complex adaptive system (CAS)

Wireless sensors everywhere

  • Wireless sensor networks will soon become as important as the Internet
  • Just as the Internet allows access to digital information anywhere, sensor networks will provide vast arrays of real-time, remote interaction with the physical world
  • The process monitoring and controls business will be generating significant growth in this new arena

Smart wireless networks

  • Will soon be everywhere around us
  • Collecting and processing vast amounts data not just monitoring a few isolated sensors, but literally tens of thousands of intelligent sensor nodes
  • Providing not merely local measurements, but overall patterns of change

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)

  • Semiconductor fabrication techniques
  • Miniature turbines, motors, gears, moving mirrors
  • Sensors, actuators, and displays
  • Size and cost bring practical utilization
  • Tremendous number of old and new applications


  • Small dimensions, big differences
    • At nanometer dimensions, the classical laws of physics change
    • New materials - smaller, stronger, tougher, lighter, resilient
  • Practical nanotech materials
    • Different characteristics when "assembled" at a molecular level
    • Carbon nanotubes - strongest and most conductive fibers
    • Nano-structured membranes for efficient filtering of pollutants
  • New gadgets galore
      Today's supercomputer tomorrow's wristwatch or PDA
    • Tiny, inexpensive nanosensors - wireless networks, medical diagnostics, chemical and biohazard detection
  • Carbon nanotube transistors
    • Smaller than any possible silicon transistor, better performance
    • New ways of storing information

NEMS - Nano Electro Mechanical Systems

  • Nanotechnology - products at atomic-scale
    • Next step beyond MEMS
  • Old-style metal bending, grinding and cutting will become obsolete
  • Build-to-order
    • Materials with flawless internal structures
    • Stronger and lighter, less wear
  • Electronics will get smaller and faster
    • Atomic-scale quantum effects - computing performance beyond today's wildest dreams

Complex adaptive systems

  • New self-organizing, peer-to-peer networks
    • Intelligence resides directly in sensors and actuators
    • Eliminating large, complex, and ineffective centralized control systems
    • Today's PLC and PC-based controls & software will seem ineffective, expensive, and even archaic
    • CAS provides a level of effectiveness and robustness that is unprecedented
    • Old deterministic control architectures will disappear

New functions & applications

  • Within the next few years, significant new technology will provide completely new functions
      Provide vast productivity and quality improvements in process systems

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