Custom Sensors Bring "intelligent" Products to Market Faster

 

The 2020’s are an exciting time to be in Product Engineering. The ability to combine technologies in completely new ways has fired up the imaginations of professionals across the globe, and in a wide range of industries. At HBK, we call these people Imagineers. “If we can add a sensor here,” they say “then we can create a feedback loop that improves ... performance, or efficiency, or it connects with something somewhere else.” Before you know it, they’ve imagined a new product that simply didn’t exist before. And when an idea evolves into a new product – one that delivers significant advantages over the old way of doing things – society as a whole will benefit. Quite often, a new market segment emerges, too.

“With 60 years’ experience and expertise in strain gauge design and manufacture HBK enables innovative OEMs to create ‘intelligent’ solutions that benefit society”

The reality of being a visionary

Sometimes an "intelligent"’ product begins when an Imagineer asks a simple question, like: ‘how do we turn this passive component into a ‘smart’ assembly?’ Other times, the project begins when the design team identifies what data is needed to create a feedback loop. It’s after that, that things get complex. Those questions trigger a lot of searching on the internet for sensors and suppliers. But the project threatens to stall when the Imagineer discovers that the sensors currently available on the market won’t fit the purpose. That could be because of the specifications for the sensor itself. Or it could be the additional conditions that define the application, such as miniaturization. Or the sensor must be rugged; or autoclavable; or send wireless signals. There’s any number of parameters and frequently several different "difficult parameters", all at the same time. When stock parts that match the specifications can’t be bought off-the-shelf, the usual response is to look at creating one specially for the purpose. “If we build it ourselves, it will become our USP” is the line of thought. However, confronts the Imagineer with an even bigger set of problems.

Can’t buy? Don’t build

Taking charge of building your own sensor creates a list of unknowns. Where to source the sensor, for a start. The same goes for the electronics that collect the signals, calibrate the data and make that data actionable. How to assemble the sensor and electronics into the component part? Will the sensor assembly fit in the product? Will it meet the performance targets? What about costs? What about scalable manufacture? And logistics?

An Imagineer determined to follow this route, must take full responsibility for every aspect of the Design for Manufacture (DfM) and Design for Assembly (DfA) issues. As well as the production schedule, supply chain and the quality of the ‘smart’ component that will be built into the new product. It’s not just a question of project management. The technical issues that inevitably occur  with a custom sensor, may impact the component development schedule, which lengthens the time-to-market for the product. And that delayed transition from ‘R&D cost’ through product launch and into ‘revenue generation’ means there’s a huge financial risk.

The idea of building a custom sensor is basically right; but the uncertainties surrounding the execution hide a minefield of dangers. Fact is, most Imagineers simply don’t have the specialized knowledge of sensor design and manufacture that is necessary to guarantee a quality result. Those obstacles are pure frustration to an Imagineer. All they want is a simple and safe way to bring their ‘smart’ product to market.

“When standard sensors don’t fit the job, we create custom OEM sensor solutions
to deliver the data that is essential for real-time feedback and control.”

And that’s why the Imagineers come to HBK.

HBK offers a complete turnkey service for OEM custom sensor solutions. Over the last decade, we have established a reputation as a ‘hidden champion’ in the field of custom sensor solutions among leading global Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) in a range of industry sectors. These OEMs partner with HBK to develop sensors for specific applications: active components that monitor and measure force, pressure or load; that collect critical data precisely and deliver it reliably. In short: we create the custom active components that enable the feedback-loops which today’s ‘intelligent’ products require.

The working relationship between OEM and HBK is frequently a collaboration, rather than a commercial supply-meets-demand transaction. By partnering with HBK, OEMs get immediate access to deep experience in strain gauge design, so that sensors can be precisely configured to meet their application needs. This collaborative style of work resolves strategic issues around prototyping and production, too. Partnering with HBK avoids the risks inherent in the self-build option. The project scope not only embraces all three phases (design, prototyping and production) it also ensures smooth transition across those phases - from initial enquiry to repeat delivery of large volumes.

Fast response plus deep knowledge in sensor technology

HBK staff have a strong track record for delivering the solutions customers specify in a timely manner. Our global reach and a preference for virtual teams ensures that projects start early. Rapid Prototyping maintains the fast pace through to pre-production preparations. As an organization with a strong reputation for manufacturing test and measurement instruments, HBK has first-hand knowledge of test procedures and protocols that are essential for an efficient and effective validation of the Prototype phase.

Custom sensor solutions often go into volume production within six months of the initial Engineering meeting. Lean Manufacturing techniques ensure smooth production to high quality standard. HBK’s focus on its own manufacturing quality is a matter of historic record: subsidiary HBM was the first organization worldwide to achieve ISO 9001 accreditation. HBK’s manufacturing facilities combine component quality with flexibility for scalable volumes. As the new ‘smart’ product gains traction in the market, OEMs can scale sensor orders to match the growth in demand. HBK will ramp-up production to keep pace. And, as an international partner with physical presence on three continents, we can actively help mitigate supply chain risks.

Last but not least, choosing a partner with deep experience in custom sensor development means OEMs will be able to assess and quantify key project milestones realistically. Issues like: how to turn existing parts into ‘active components’; how to integrate those components into existing products; how to simplify assembly of the finished product; how much time and effort are needed for each of the three development phases? Imagineers who partner with HBK widen their network to include professionals who can help them achieve their project goals. The experience and expertise of our project managers means they can actively guide Imagineers through the challenges of new sensor development and on towards a successful product launch.

End-to-end expertise for OEM sensor development

HBK's 60 years’ experience in measurement technology enables us to leverage the know-how to develop customer-specific sensors – from strain gauges to measurement electronics – to deliver complete systems with a high level of precision and reliability. If the active sensor you need for a new ‘intelligent’ product isn’t available off the shelf, contact HBK today.

A Custom-Made Sensor in Three Phases

 

Once an Imagineer has identified an opportunity for a ‘smart’ product, the OEM typically wants the development of custom sensors to proceed very rapidly. "New market segments can emerge very quickly – but so can competitiors - so you have to seize the moment. That’s why we respond to every enquiry as swiftly as we can," says Hermann Merz, Sales Manager for OEM Custom Sensor Solutions.

1.    Custom sensor design

Projects to produce a new custom sensor design typically begin with an exchange of NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreement) so we can set an early date for the initial engineering conference.

In the weeks that follow, our experts work with the Imagineer and team to clarify the goals of the feedback loop, the function of the sensor and identify which components could be converted to active measurement. Precise analysis of the application usually includes Finite Element Analysis (FEA) which forms the foundation for further development work.

HBK creates a test concept and proposal; produces control drawings to show how the requirements will be met; delivers a cost estimate for manufacturing prototypes; and discusses the target price for production at various levels of volume. After receiving customer approval, we begin the prototype phase.

2.    Rapid prototype development

Twenty years of experience with special sensor systems, combined with rapid prototyping techniques means HBK typically delivers a functional test sensor in just a few weeks.

When prototypes are complete, the new OEM sensor design is installed in the customer product and thoroughly tested. HBK provides all test equipment and will provide test protocols if desired. It’s at this stage that details - such as the position of connections or measurement electronics - are evaluated and refined. In parallel, our experts use the test results to optimize the calibration of the strain gauges in the active sensor.

Active sensors, based on strain gauges tailor-made for the product and application deliver precise and reliable data for feedback-loops. HBK can do this because it has deep practical experience of developing more than 1.000 customer-specific strain gauges for OEM customers.

3.    Scalable Production of High Quality components

With testing successfully concluded, the prototype sensor transitions seamlessly into series and volume production. Development and production are closely intermeshed. Once prototypes are approved, the transfer of a project from engineering to production teams is performed accurately and effectively thanks to a global SAP implementation, best-in-class quality systems and an experienced international logistics team.

 

Innovative manufacturers build ‘intelligent’ products with custom sensors from HBK

Combining lean engineering practices and application experience in OEM sensors, HBK can provide strain gauge-based force, pressure, and load sensors to meet customers’ precise requirements with short development times. Our experience to date includes the development of custom sensors across a wide range of industries, such as:

  • precision agriculture: maximising crop yields to feed the world,
  • wireless implantables: ensuring better results from surgery for injury or disease,
  • smart healthcare: monitoring hospital equipment that improves quality of life,
  • haptic sportsgear: optimizing the user experience in devices that improve health,
  • intelligent manufacturing: permitting error-free operation of robots 24x7,
  • autonomous vehicles: controlling safe operation in hazardous environments,
  • smart energy: monitoring and controlling the systems that deliver quality of life,
  • predictive infrastructure: monitoring long-term safety of the built environment.
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