Sensor Technologies and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Ten years ago, if you asked the average person on the street how many different kinds of sensors they could name, they might have been stumped after the usual answers of temperature and humidity… a couple may have mentioned a bar code scanner. Today, many would look to their pocket for inspiration in the shape of their smart phone.


The Internet of Things (IoT) is now part and parcel of our daily lives. Sensors have made their way into every element, from financial transactions to exercise. Electronics continue to shrink and ‘app-ification’ now relies heavily on a constant stream of real world data.


In the consumer market, the wearables era has arrived and though many are still waiting for the breakthrough iPhone moment, it’s possible to see where smart watches and fitness trackers are starting to add value.


So what are the challenges? Security remains a key issue and it still seems to be an afterthought for many new IoT devices. The use of sensor technologies also raises significant privacy and legal concerns with privacy advocates and opponents focused on answering the question: “Who owns the data?”


Meanwhile from a consumer perspective, providers may find they need to tackle aesthetic, moral, and psychological objections from people without an active desire to integrate these products into their daily lives, before mainstream adoption of wearables and monitoring devices can take place.


Our industrial world isn’t immune to these changes – far from it. We’re currently in the very early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (4IR). New technologies are transforming manufacturing and making factories ‘smart’, but much like the consumer world, there are barriers to overcome and many would argue the transition to ‘smart’ isn’t happening fast enough – particularly when the race is on to boost UK productivity and remain globally competitive.


Although industrial companies are rapidly recognising the benefits that sensor technology can deliver to their process or products, a lack of skills and standardisation of this technology are some of the barriers standing in the way of widespread adoptions. Another key challenge is the lack of industry defined communication protocols or commonly applied way of utilising data once it has been gathered.


Although there is an almost endless list of components that allow measurement, inspection and test, in many cases, engineers wade through a sea of standards and technologies before finding that the solution they’re after could be just as easily found by connecting a sensor to a trusty Arduino shield or Raspberry Pi.


Why do people settle for these highly-effective, no-frills tools? Often, someone has been there first and usually documented the process. These tools offer a cost-effective blank canvas for sensor integration. Creativity coupled with cheap off-the-shelf sensors are a formidable combination that can open new doors for any engineer or product designer.


In the 4IR, sensors provide data about machines, people, environment. Providing this data is captured and interpreted correctly, which these simple toolkits have the potential to do – significant gains can be made in efficiency, waste reduction and, perhaps most importantly, preventative maintenance, which improves uptime.


If the toolkits described above are given priority, this gives companies a head start in the race to remain productive and stay one step ahead.

The maker and entrepreneur community have played a key role in driving forward the adoption of IoT. This has been critical in accelerating the creation of disruptive products and ideas, which in turn,  has driven down cost and forced innovation. New types of networks are forming around connected devices and LoRaWAN is a great example of community spirit driving innovation through The Things Network. Could this be the start of truly smart cities?

But what of the cutting edge? Where is sensor technology heading? Sensor City is a brand new building in the heart of Liverpool. It’s a global hub for sensor technology supporting SMEs through technical expertise, collaboration and links to academia. It is connected to leading research in the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Mores University.


Together, both universities have expertise and know-how across multiple sectors (aerospace, health, clean energy, robotics, materials, driverless vehicles and satellite/space technology) that will support the future industrial strategy for the UK. This strategy will need to be underpinned by innovative SMEs and the development of new and disruptive technologies and their transfer to SMEs from the universities through Sensor City.

As a partner of LCR4.0, Sensor City is working with some truly innovative companies aiming to tackle major industry challenges (including those set out in the governments Industrials Strategy Challenge Fund) using sensor technologies. This ERDF funded project is helping bring the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) to life in the Liverpool City Region.


The city region has a thriving industrial heritage with productivity well above the average and keeping ahead of the competition by integrating sensors and other elements of 4IR will help grow that lead even further.

The ‘digital sensory gold’ rush has begun and over the next five – ten years we will see all kinds of highly-disruptive new IoT products and sensor innovations begin to jostle for position in a highly-charged market that is worth USD 480 billion.


But right now, we’re still at the vanguard of a brand new era, where creativity is still king and the barriers to entry for IoT and sensing are lower than they have ever been. Early adopters still stand a good chance of winning, or at the very least, getting a solid head start on the competition.