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5 posts from June 2011


Redundancy - Always a Good Idea for Process Control/Safety

I was alerted to an article related to level measurement. In this case, level measurements were being taken on a river where there was a nuclear power plant nearby. There had been a problem when one of the two level sensors making measurements had a problem and, as a result, they almost had to shut the power plant down. To me this situation underscores two important points:

1.) Process safety sensing can extend beyond the borders of the facility where the process is happening. In a power plant situation you want to know if the cooling water supply is at risk or, as in this case, there is a risk of flooding.

2.) Having redundancy in your process control and/or safety sensing loops prevents errors from happening. Sensor errors could lead to unnecessary shutdowns and lost productivity or, in the worst case, problems and/or undetected problems that cause damage and/or injury.

The article I referenced did not go into details about the sensors in beyond it being a "pressure sensor" measuring level. This could mean two hydrostatic (pressure) sensors being deployed to measure differential pressure or two independent sensors making the measurements at close proximity to each other. In either case, it does underscore the need for redundant sensing when critical processes are being controlled or safeguarded.

On a related note, be on the lookout for a set of surveys supporting our Process Level and Inventory Tank Gauging (ITG) market research that we will likely be deploying after the July 4th holiday weekend. There will be opportunities for Process Level and ITG suppliers and users to win significant prizes. Stay on the lookout for an alert blog here and/or a VDC or launch partner e-mail that announces them.


A Couple of Quick Thoughts on UPS Market and Products

I had some thoughts on the UPS markets this morning that I thought I might share. Both are driven from recent events.

As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) begins meetings this week looking at the events at Fukushima-Daiichi, they will no doubt look at the failure of the backup power systems to maintain cooling until a full and orderly reactor shutdown could occur. This led me to think about the role a Uninterruptible Power System (UPS) fulfills in this process. These UPS systems are used as a bridge between the power being restored by the primary system or the power generator. In the Fukushima case, the generators were affected by the tsunami and therefore it reduced the importance of whether the UPS worked or not. But, if that were not the case, I began to wonder if the UPS would have fulfilled its role. In a severe earthquake, would the batteries survive? If it were flywheel based, would the flywheel survive? Would all the breakers and connections between modules stay intact? Manufacturers that can provide and demonstrate this capability will likely find a growing market as the existing nuclear power plants have to be upgraded based on the recomendations from the IAEA's investigation and the work and findings from other similar organizations.

My second thought was around a story I saw this morning in the NY Times regarding the seizure of several racks of servers in a data center. At the time I write this, it seems that several "innocent" companies that had nothing to do with the FBI's case were taken off-line. This is not a new story as the risk of data seizure has always been there when a company considers outsourcing its data center. But, this case might be a market changer similar in that the move to consolidated "cloud" data centers might be slowed significantly and therefore the market for smaller 20kVA and under UPS systems supporting smaller groups of servers will be maintained at the expense of the larger units.

Depending on what happens in the aftermath of this FBI case, it could lead to changes in data center architecture where servers and infrastructures from certain business types would be concentrated in groups in accordance to the seizure risks. It remains to be seen if these business driven changes will drive changes in the supporting power products.


Wireless Sensor Networks and The Cloud Are Raining Data

Although I did not have a great deal of time to walk the floor and visit every booth to learn about all the new (and not so new) products and technologies exhibited at the Sensors Expo, I did glean the sense that wireless sensor networks and cloud computing are gaining traction as users increasingly embrace the benefits of wireless connectivity to obtain data and also grapple with what to do with all the data being collected, analyzed and managed.

Based on extensive research from VDC's Wireless Industrial Networking Products research we know about the many benefits and factors which are driving demand for wireless connectivity and sensor monitoring is an application well suited to benefit from the usage of wireless networks. Cloud computing is supposed to provide the user with greater performance capabilities, real-time analysis and data storage capabilities and the possibility for a 3rd party to manage part of, or all of, the data process of collection, analysis and storage. 

Companies such as Digi International and MicroStrain were highlighting offerings which leveraged both wireless sensor networks and cloud computing and there were several other companies that were highlighting a wireless sensor network solution leveraging an 802.11x network standard, an 802.15.4 (ISA-100, Wireless HART, Zigbee, etc.) network standard and/or a proprietary narrow band solution (2.4 GHz band, 900 MHz band, etc.)

VDC will be launching a new project on wireless sensor networks later this year and the impact of cloud computing and who manages all the data being acquired from the burgeoning use of wireless sensor networks will no doubt be part of the research discussion. We are very much interested in learning about what issues, questions and market forces are of greatest interest to the marketplace and welcome any feedback you can share or questions/issues to consider.

A discussion about for which applications users may choose to leverage cloud computing's capabilities is a blog for another day. 


Marketing Data Acquisition Solutions in the 21st Century

One of the benefits of being a founding sponsor of VDC's market intelligence is the opportunity for clients to review the survey tools and make suggested questions/inputs for considerations prior to launching the web survey and phone interviews. Here is a short blog about one such interesting example from our ongoing 2011 Data Acquisition Solutions Market Intelligence project.

I must admit that when one of our sponsors wanted to add professional networking sites (i.e. LinkedIn, etc.) and social networking sites (i.e. Facebook, etc.) to the list of information sources users rely on to learn more about data acquisition solutions and suppliers I did not anticipate getting much, if any, responses from survey respondents. Regardless I added them to the list so as to provide that benefit and was interested to see the results.

Feedback from over 220 respondents indicates that I may be operating from a 20th century mindset when it comes to marketing.

Below are the top level breakdowns of survey results and where these two mediums fared amongst of list of 19 different information source selections.

Professional Networking Sites

24% of external chassis & module users cited professional networking sites (10th out of 19). 

28% (8th) of plug-in boards users cited relying on professional networking sites

16% (11th) data acquisition software users rely on professional networking sites

As a member I know that people utilize various LinkedIn groups to ask questions about products, solutions, suppliers, etc. Perhaps suppliers can become active participants in such discussions by using "soft sell" approaches which offer up helpful recommendations, perhaps even citing their own solution. Advertising on websites such as LinkedIn may be another way to reach a targeted customer segment. Personally I recommend the "no-cost" solution of being an active group participant; but even that takes time and consistent follow up to have any chance of being effective, so there is no free lunch.

Social Networking Sites

16% (15th) of external chassis users cited visiting social networking sites  indicating their belief that they may learn something on Facebook or some other related website about DAQ.

17% (19th) of board users cited visiting social networking sites

only 8% (19th) of data acquisition software users cited visiting a social networking site

I am not sure why someone would visit Facebook to learn more about data acquisition solutions and suppliers. Perhaps our respondents were using Facebook to keep in touch with colleagues or to utilize that venue to engage in discussions about data acquisition solutions from people they know and trust. With over 500 million users on Facebook I imagine there may be a few data acquisition solutions users, suppliers and/or related stakeholders lurking around who may be happy to share an opinion or suggestion.

If you want to learn more about the other 17 information sources users rely on to learn about data acquisition solutions and suppliers or the plethora of additional analysis on users requirements and preferences, adoption plans, purchase plans, technical and commercial requirements and much more, drop me a line at tims@vdcsearch.com.



German Move Away From Nuclear Power Creates Challenges and Opportunities

The recent news from Germany about the plans to phase out all nuclear power generation by 2022 will create significant challenges to German industrial companies but, at the same time, opportunities for many suppliers of industrial and power components. The main challenge will be dealing with the potential energy cost increases particularly in the southern regions where ~2/3 of Germany's nuclear plants are concentrated. Some have predicted energy costs could rise as much as 45% in these areas. Not all of the replacements for the lost power generation facilities will come from solar or wind but, whatever the source, it will be more costly.

In reaction to this bold plan, many German manufacturers will now be shifting their expansion / new facility plans to areas within Germany that will have lower costs but will also likely increase consideration of building in other countries as well.

The opportunities will come from the sensors and electromechanical components used in wind and conventional turbine power generation systems. There will also be a significant demand for many types of power grid infrastructure that bodes well for suppliers such as Siemens and ABB. There will also be increased needs for power protection equipment such as surge suppressors and Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) systems as renewable energy sources are a huge variable as compared to nuclear plants in general. The increased need for Oil and Gas as well as conventional power generating stations will also drive the market for intrinsic safety sensors and components. Another growth area will be in the transportation systems and containers as well as long-term storage systems for spent nuclear fuel rods.

In my opinion, the German move is an overreaction. Clearly there will be lessons learned from the Fukushima incident that will drive improvements in nuclear plant designs and operational procedures. As Japan, Germany, and other countries cut back on nuclear power, the price of the fuel rods will decrease and Eastern Bloc countries that continue to rely on nuclear power will have an advantage with respect to energy cost. This will be a huge draw for some heavy power users such as industrial manufacturers.