42 TechnologyNewsSpecialist sensors, new instruments and calling in the consultants

Specialist sensors, new instruments and calling in the consultants

Projects involving sensor technology or developing new instrumentation make up a large chunk of work at 42 Technology and we work on challenging projects across many different sectors.
The market has evolved over the last couple of decades with a move towards increasingly sophisticated, highly featured products. This article gives an insight into the benefits of using a consultancy.

Big budgets for blue-sky

In the 80s the UK MoD invested significant budgets and frequently commissioned contract R&D companies to provide technology demonstrators or to solve a specific current problem. The technology demonstrators did not necessarily have a specific end point at the outset but they created platforms for further study, as well as pump priming technology developments that would otherwise have been too risky for commercial organisations to contemplate. For example, development of leading edge micro-machined silicon devices – sponsored over several years ostensibly to develop guidance and other control sensors – resulted in huge advances in core production and product technologies. National and international bodies have subsequently taken up the mantle to stimulate fundamental research and improve national competitiveness, but much of the present capability in MEMs, advanced digital signal processing and display technologies wouldn’t have occurred without the MoD’s support. Other MoD work did have a sound ‘commercial’ justification. One project, for example, involved detecting a fault condition before firing a field gun that would otherwise have self destructed and killed or maimed the crew!

Specialist instruments for high value applications

Some commercial developments are aimed at high-value instruments. A US manufacturer making pumps for natural and propane gas, needed to understand the behaviour of the main thrust bearing that was ‘lubricated’ by the (very cold) liquid gas. An instrument was developed to monitor the mechanical behaviour under real operating conditions in a large, challenging and commercially essential project. Bearing failure wasn’t an option; they operate in highly dangerous explosive conditions in very expensive installations. The test alone, carried out in atrocious rain after a six month drought in California, was costly as huge quantities of gas had to be burned to waste.

Sensor based products and instruments for new markets

Many consumer and industrial product companies whose core skills are not in sensors and instrumentation use consultancies to develop sensor based products to complement their core technologies. Many such products can be found in our homes and cars with embedded sensors providing a specific functionality, although the core sensing technology is often transparent to the user. For example, healthcare companies with cutting-edge technologies for improved monitoring in the home – like the Persona fertility device or blood glucose meters. Hilti is an interesting industrial example; they devised a number of reinforcing bar detectors and other instruments to complement their core construction tool business.

Calling in the consultants

Technology consultancies are a rich resource to tap into for help with sensor-based and instrumentation projects. They work on a vast array of different products and their industrial experience, problem-solving skills and ability to cross-fertilise technologies can be invaluable in helping to fast track developments. Companies may not necessarily have the in-house product development expertise and experience. Yet these products are so critical for future market success that the business case for partnering with an external resource is clear-cut. The company gets immediate access to new skills for a fresh insight on product functionality or appearance, or can bring in experienced engineers for help with cost reduction, development of a new technology platform or to boost innovation. In many cases the investment is easily offset against large product sales or a high capital value

But can companies already acknowledged as specialists in the sensor or instrumentation field also benefit from external help? The answer lies really in what help is required and where the consultancy adds value. An industrial instrument company, experts in their particular sensing technology, brought in 42 Technology specifically to restyle the design for low cost manufacturing and add new data logging and GPS functionality by incorporating a new processor platform. We were also used to develop a new production process to cut costs and improve performance for another industrial instrumentation company.

First build the business case then manage the interfaces

To ensure a successful product development, comprehensive research, development and detailed designs are all essential in producing robust, effective solutions. Obviously ALL projects whether they involve external help or not need to be justified; either commercially with a thorough business case, or technically as research to provide future technology platforms or development options. Similarly ALL projects must be managed through a stage gate process where risks and deliverables are monitored. With increasingly fast moving, globalised markets it would be hard to imagine anyone in current times investing precious NPD resources, without firstly conducting an in-depth review of the technology options and developing detailed plans with defined decision and exit points. However, as part of their planning cycle, many companies still wrestle with the challenge of whether to call in external help or to go it alone. The decision to work with a consultancy will always depend on many factors, including the blend of personalities. The stage gate process needs to be carefully managed from both sides to avoid unclear specifications or specification creep which influences timescales, risks and costs. But with strong communication channels and relationships based on trust, the business benefit frequently extends far beyond the initial project making a long-term commercial contribution to a company’s technology strategy and approach for creating market-winning products and processes.