Commentary: beyond the sensor at Sensors Expo

June 11, 2015

Long Beach, CA. Sensors Expo convened here this week, and a few themes were evident from conversations with many exhibitors. Basically, companies are attempting to increase revenue by offering more than only the sensor. Omron is a well established manufacturer of relays and switches. The company has a less-well-known division that develops video-based products. A product sold in Japan recognizes whether a man or woman is standing in front of a display panel. The appropriate advertising is shown depending on that determination. Similar image-recognition software was being demo’d at the Omron booth. This application had more of a security capability: it could pick out pre-registered faces—apparently performing identification from a no-fly list, for example.

Tekscan makes a range of X-Y matrix pressure sensors—similar to the large-scale pressure sensing fabric displayed by a different company at last year’s sensor expo, but on a smaller scale. The large-scale product went into air beds for bed-ridden patients. It sensed areas of high pressure and software redistributed air pressure in the bed to minimize formation of bed sores. For Tekscan’s smaller sensors, more localized pressure irregularities were discussed, such as the contact of a tire’s tread to the ground. The company has developed a data-acquisition module that interfaces to the pressure sensors. Output from the DAQ module is processed by Tekscan software to display a color-coded graphic image of the pressure variation.

Mouser, Arrow, and other distributors have also been active in providing added value. Although these companies don’t actually manufacture components or assemblies, they do offer a range of supporting activities including design.

Analog Devices is very active in several areas beyond conventional semiconductors. For example, the company makes MEMS accelerometers and a number of sensor-related analog front end ICs. In addition, many reference designs are available online. Because the software application is interactive, you are able to make changes to designs if you need to.

So, one theme is the provision of added value through several different means. Rapid prototyping was another theme evident from the keynote, delivered by Discovery Channel’s Dr. Mike North. He talked about the relationship among risk, innovation, and imagination, and in particular how today’s electronics and software support imagination much more than in the past. The format for Dr. North’s TV program is the development and prototyping of several new things every two weeks. This actually can be done, as he has proven, but is only possible because of the wide availability of both modular hardware and software.

Taking the rapid prototyping idea a bit farther, 3D printing allows very fast production of real things—sometimes things that can’t be made any other way. A particularly impressive example of rapid prototyping actually made North’s keynote possible. He had broken his leg and immediately ran into a number of problems: he couldn’t fly with a walking cast because his leg would swell up at altitude, so the cast had to be cut in half and taped on—OK for healing, but not to support weight. That meant he was on crutches, which greatly curtailed activity.

The solution North came up with started with a 3D scan of his bare leg in his doctor’s office. That raw data formed the input to a 3D printing program for a novel printed nylon walking cast. The printing included the cast itself as well as the necessary straps and buckles that allow it to be loosened on airplanes. He was completely mobile throughout the presentation and only near the end of his talk pulled up his pants leg to show the cast.

Being Mike North, he also showed an all-singing, all-dancing cast version with built-in speakers to provide frequency-enhanced healing. Of course, the cast was Wi-Fi linked via the cloud so he could select the desired therapeutic frequency from his cell phone, or even some jive music if that was more appropriate at the moment. The bottom line is that the cast was entirely a product of existing, proven technology, just driven by different imagination. His closing message was to prototype! Rapid prototyping with its necessary failures along the way gets you to a better solution faster than the traditional approach.

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