Sensors: Advancing digital transformation and sustainability in process industries

Opinion | July 13, 2023


Nunzio Bonavita

Technology for Sustainability Expert, ABB



The digital transformation is a disruptive movement that is bringing both financial and sustainability benefits to process industries.  

We are today experiencing an exciting growth phase in the field of process and environmental sensors as digital transformation disrupts the world around us. From the way we live to the way we work to the way we think, data science and the Internet of Things are unleashing benefits everywhere. 

Advances such as unlimited computing power, miniaturization, effective wireless communication, machine learning and many other developments are positively impacting efficiency and sustainability over a wide range of industrial processes. Many process industries are changing as digital transformation disrupts how we design, build, operate and maintain production facilities. 


Sustainability is an important part of the picture

Many of the advantages we get from digital transformation also lead to sustainability benefits. The expression “Digital Sustainability,” which is the achievement of superior resource efficiency and performance due to better application of digital technologies, has recently been introduced to describe the relationship between these concepts. This means fewer natural resources are being consumed – and fewer emissions are being generated -- in our production processes.

Moreover, lower costs for both raw materials and emission treatment result in significant financial benefits for industrial producers. Safety and disaster prevention are also improved, based on better understanding of process conditions and faster response in case of anomalies, via greatly improved digital transformation technologies. 


A key difference: Digital Transformation vs Digitalization

Before proceeding, it is important to clarify the difference between “Digital Transformation” and “Digitalization.” Digitalization is just a prerequisite; necessary, but not in itself sufficient for achieving Digital Transformation. 

  • Digitalization refers to enabling or improving processes by leveraging digital technologies and digitized data, through a series of digitalization projects, ranging from automating processes to retraining workers to use computers. 
  • Digital Transformation encompasses the actual business transformation enabled by digitalization, driving tangible improvements in both production and business processes. This goes much further than simply adopting new digital technologies; it means using them for wider gains in productivity, sustainability and profitability. 


The Four Vs of Big Data: Volume, Variety, Velocity and Veracity

Businesses are becoming increasingly data-thirsty, due to the exceptional requirements of the Four Vs of Big Data, which are explained below. Sensor technology will play a vital role in generating this data, improving quality, quantity and speed, so it can be fused, merged and contextualized to extract as much value as possible. 
  • Volume: For greater real-time process insight in a plant, a huge amount of data is needed, which in turn requires tens, hundreds or even thousands of sensors. 
  • Variety: While numerical data dominates, inputs such as video, photos, sounds or other signals are growing in importance. Data fusion and merging capability is now required. 
  • Velocity: Real-time processing needs speed and efficiency, both in the processors and throughout the entire data communication and management chain. 
  • Veracity: Accurate and credible, high-quality data is key since data is the basis upon which many autonomous and human decisions will be made. High-quality data is required from the devices and throughout the transmission lines. 

Contextualizing is now possible

As the Italian philosopher and author Umberto Eco stated in Foucalt’s Pendulum, “Any data becomes important if it is connected to another one. The connection changes the perspective.” The sensing and measuring landscape is now changing completely due to the ability to contextualize data. This leads to actionable insights that enable significant benefits in terms of production efficiency, resource effectiveness, and sustainability impacts

Looking at the evolution of the sensing landscape, 40 to 50 years ago, we basically had sensors and not much more. They told us pressures, temperatures, flow rates etc. and then we had to put this data into context, analyze it, and maybe take some action. Now the landscape looks completely different, with areas of impact roughly broken into the following categories:

  1. Smart Sensing Digital Enablers. We now have very smart sensing devices, which are digitally empowered, able to communicate through wireless connections and efficient communications protocols like OPC UA, Hart and Modbus. This feature on one hand facilitates the interaction with humans or other machinery, and on the other hand increases the amount of data and information the instrument can provide. Sensors that monitor processes are helpful, but they are even more valuable when they can predict a possible asset failure, in themselves or in the production equipment. Traditional sensors have been so upgraded that they could be framed essentially as small computers with a sensor.
  2. Application-Specific Digital Solutions. A second typology is represented by digital devices tailored for specific applications, where the software component is so relevant as to become dominant. Flow computers, for example, are sophisticated measurement devices able to compensate and compute flow exchanges in critical measurement operations, often involving fiscal taxation or legal obligations. Software libraries and number-crunching algorithms are as important as the sensing performances of analyzers and field instruments to allow exact measurement of critical streams, like gas or oil. 
  3. Connected software solutions. Finally, a fast-developing segment is represented by solutions addressing specific tasks where the added value comes from integrating different data sources in order to provide comprehensive investigations or benchmarks against other plants or units. We are rapidly moving away from simply providing a sensing or measuring device for one specific solution, but rather an entire connected sensor/software solution.  


Predictive emissions monitoring: a perfect example of virtualization

An example of the advances in sensing technology is ABB’s PEMS solution. PEMS stands for Predictive Emissions Monitoring System, which is a software alternative to the traditional emissions measuring solutions, in other words, a virtual measurement solution. It allows users, under the right conditions, to remove any hardware analyzer and device, and instead use data-driven modeling and machine learning to predict the emissions coming from a factory or chimney. This is being done in industrial processes, where analyzers are not installed, but just data is used to assess and report on emissions. This approach is permissible according to regulations in many regions, from the USA to Europe to the Gulf region.

To use virtual measurements, we first get a baseline for the measurement by collecting data with a temporary analyzer for a month or two, to identify correlations between emissions and the plant’s operating conditions. Then we use neural networks to create software models that reproduce the conditions and therefore the predicted emissions. At that point, we remove the temporary sensors and just leave a microprocessor to report the emissions. Of course, models and procedures have to be extremely accurate and reliable; for this reason, an external party must certify them. We have many applications of this solution around the world, all of which are examples of the benefits of digitalization and digital transformation. 

Connected software solutions for gas leak detection

The third category, connected software solutions, is a reality as we already have several systems working in the field. A good example is our gas leakage detection system, which is mounted on automobiles or drones. Here, the latest generation laser technology is combined with other technologies to perform extremely sensitive gas leak detection, at very low levels from tens of meters away from the leakage point. The gas leakage challenge is severe: cities often have a maze of gas pipelines underground, where any leakage can cause serious safety hazards, environmental damage and cost impacts. Gas companies are under strict regulations to promptly identify and repair leakages.

With this technology, instead of monitoring pipelines from just 1-2 meters away, one can drive in a car above ground and detect methane leakage from 20-30 meters away. The solutions can also differentiate between methane and ethane, which is important for distinguishing a real gas leak from a natural organic decomposition. So false alarms are reduced while real leak concentration improves. Methane leak detection also has important sustainability benefits since methane has a negative greenhouse effect that is 40 times higher than carbon.

Built into the software are features such as wind speed and direction analysis, which helps to pinpoint the exact location of the leak. This can be reported immediately in real time for action and repair. In addition, since everything is in digital format, any required reporting to authorities is quick and easy. We have also adapted this technology to drones, which gives it a much broader range of applications, both for underground gas networks as well as for monitoring gas compressing stations or buildings. 


An exciting time to be in this field

I have enjoyed working with automation, measurement and analytics for 36 years, and can honestly say that this is an extremely exciting time to be working in this area. The digital transformation offers enormous opportunities that will challenge and excite many people for years to come. The benefits that it offers in terms of process and operational efficiencies, safety and sustainability are incomparable with anything I’ve seen in the past. So, anyone working in this field has a bright and stimulating future.

Proceeding with digital transformation may mean moving out of your comfort zone. But if you do, I am convinced that you will find it valuable.

If you would like to discuss digital transformation in more detail, or how you can work with ABB to reap digital transformation benefits, please contact your local ABB representative


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