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Updated: April 5, 2011 16:21 IST

IT integration in measurement and instrumentation

D. Murali
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Shekar Gopalan. Photo: Special Arrangement
Shekar Gopalan. Photo: Special Arrangement

India’s internal demand for measurement and instrumentation (M&I) products and services is growing in double digits with the expansion of its economy and increased infrastructure investments, observes Shekar Gopalan, Partner & Global VP of Research, Frost & Sullivan, US (http://bit.ly/F4TShekarG). “As local manufacturing matures with the economy and local regulators increase governance on food, water, environment, etc., India is likely to see a higher level of investment into M&I,” he adds, during the course of a recent interaction with Business Line.

As examples, Shekar mentions the increasing digitisation, use of sensors and embedded instrumentation in smart grids, hybrid electric vehicles/electric vehicles and so on. Conceding that some of these do not have current markets in India, at the moment, he is hopeful of a growing local demand for these, too, very soon.

“In the building automation area, occupancy sensors are a key application; and in the infrastructure arena, several types of accelerometers and optical sensing elements are being included. These are currently employed in higher-end residential and commercial infrastructure in India. All these form the backbone of a continuous and embedded architecture for measurement.” Our conversation continues over the email.

Excerpts from the interview.

Would you like to trace the evolution of IT infusion into test and measurement?

Instrumentation enables measurement, and thus our ability to test for anticipated results. Up to the early eighties, instrumentation products were largely mechanical and manual and electronics was limited to transistors, operational amplifiers, and simple logic ICs.

The infusion of IT into instrumentation – in the form of microcontrollers, firmware, and software – created a paradigm shift in accuracy, ease of use, connectivity, and automation. This was followed by instrumentation that was computer-based, on PCs, and modular. Today, instrumentation is increasingly digital, embedded and cannot exist without IT integration

Are standards coping with the level of IT in the devices around us?

Yes. The instrumentation industry is very religious in regards to standards. In many instances, standards are created and proposed by vendors with real products. It is then submitted to bodies such as IEEE, ANSI, and various industry/technology consortia for approval. These bodies broad-base the standards, removing any vendor-specific attributes. Thus, products from multiple vendors can communicate and work together and produce results that are traceable to common standards. IT enables such communication between devices as well as transportation of measured results between various instruments and analysis software to create complex test routines

In which areas of test and measurement is cutting-edge work happening?

There are many areas. In particular; I would mention the wireless sensors and the embedded instrumentation industry which are transforming how we measure and monitor life around us. This really follows the morphing of test and measurement from a design verification and production test/ repair requirement to a process of continuous measurement that enables near real-time responses at the end-user level.

Wireless sensors play a vital part in generating the stimulus nearest to the user, which can be in inaccessible or in mobile locations; and proliferation of wireless connectivity has enabled measured data to be shared by other sensors or instruments for making intelligent decisions. This enables continuous sampling and measurement rather than an off-line process.

The other exciting aspect of IT infusion into testing is the ability to embed test elements into products, systems, and devices closer to the user. Constantly evolving semiconductor technology is enabling miniaturisation of sensing elements and the ability to pack signal conditioning and digitisation at the front-end. Add to it low power and miniaturised embedded computing power, and you now have the ability to make rapid and accurate measurements at multiple points in an environment and correlate all of them over a network to make intelligent decisions.

These technological developments are critical as users increasingly demand higher performance and reliability of products and services, manufacturers struggle to keep cost of replacement/repair low in the face of compressed margins due to global competition, and service providers face increased costs and challenges in hiring skilled workers to make manual tests and repairs.

Embedded measurement has already proliferated in our daily lives more than we realise. Cellphones automatically switching to a different network when signal is low, washing machines using fuzzy logic to set programs, etc. are all embedded measurement in a small way. When you take that concept and apply it to complex communication networks, industrial automation, process control, robotics, automotive electronics, etc., you start seeing the benefits of monitoring, measurement, and test in the future and its proliferation.

With measurement and instrumentation happening very close to the end-user, are there challenges of education and awareness?

Not really. Once again, IT comes to the rescue. Until recently, the average end-user was hardly aware of the importance of measurement in daily life. As long as things worked, all was fine. When something broke down, it was turned in to fix.

However, this is fast changing where the end-user has to monitor measurements and make decisions. A simple example is checking the signal level or battery level (number of bars) on your cell phone. That is a measurement result and the user has to make a decision based on the results.

There are many such examples of measured data from car dashboards, home electric meters, gas meters, microwave ovens, rice cookers, washing machines, etc., that are being presented to users to make decisions. This will only increase. Often, the user is unaware that he or she is responding to a measurement.

The benefit of IT infusion in these products translates such measured results in plain language or numbers for users to understand and respond thus diminishing the need for a high level of awareness to the process of measurement.

Where do you see M&I headed and do you see India being relevant to tomorrow’s M&I?

Measurement is an integral part of our lives now. Anything that is made by human beings has to be tested and measured to its intended and stated purpose. Increasingly, measurement is also morphing into continuous ‘monitoring’ process. With much of our lives now associated with smart gadgets around us including mobile phones, mobile computers, smart cars, intelligent appliances, etc., the opportunity to dynamically measure and receive results and make instant decisions is increasing.

This is expected to drive an increased level of embedded measurements in the future. It will also increase user and consumer awareness of the benefits of measurement and response. For example, the consumer will be able to make intelligent decisions on matters such as energy, water, gasoline, consumption at various points of time in the day or week.

India plays an important part in the M&I ecosystem. Although there is very little manufacturing activity in the country, India is a centre of excellence for many multinational measurement companies wherein Indian engineers design measurement products, applications, and software. India is also host to several system integration outfits that put together various instrumentation products and design software for specific measurement tasks.

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