At your production facility, do people still go around with pens and paper to log critical performance and quality data?

If you answered yes, you’re not alone.

47% of manufacturers still rely on pen and paper for data collection.

InfinityQS (2017)

The operations managers I’ve spoken with provided a number of reasons why the practice endures:

  • With a pen and paper system, there’s no upfront capital cost!
  • Our monitoring processes could certainly be improved, but there’s no will to change.
  • What if we buy into a new technology, and it doesn’t work?

These objections cannot hide the obvious downsides of manual data collection: it’s time-consuming, error-prone, and only a snapshot of something subject to change.

Wireless sensors offer a better alternative.

This post will help you explore whether going wireless is right for your business based on your current processes and goals. First, I’ll provide a brief introduction to industrial wireless sensors. Then I’ll use a real life example to demonstrate how wireless sensors saved one business 71% in data collection costs.

Introduction to Wireless Sensors

Wireless sensors have a microcontroller and radio transmitter to send data to internet-connected gateways or directly to the cloud. While they’re not a new technology, in the past few years they’ve become considerably more affordable and robust.

Wireless sensors can either be purchased off-the-shelf or custom built. For businesses without experience building hardware, I recommend buying off-the-shelf sensors because it’s the simplest and easiest way to get started.

It’s important to keep a few key factors in mind when selecting an off-the-shelf wireless sensor:

  • Interoperability: In today’s wireless sensor market, vendor-lock is a challenge. Most vendors install proprietary software on their wireless sensors and gateways so that they are only compatible with each other. However some manufacturers, such as National Control Devices, enable their wireless sensors to work with almost any internet-connected gateway device. The best way to confirm whether a wireless sensor is interoperable is to ask the manufacturer.
A wireless sensor made by National Control Devices
  • Range: WiFi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee are common protocols for short range transmission (<300 ft). Long range wireless sensors usually use an open radio frequency, such as 900 MHz, LoRa, or Sigfox. Most sensor manufacturers tell you a range their sensors work within. Both physical and environmental disruptions to signal transmission can shorten the sensor’s range, so make sure to take operating conditions into consideration.
  • Power: Wireless sensors can be either battery-operated or hardwired. Battery-operated sensors are ideal for outdoor locations, or in an indoor facility where there is no convenient power access. Environmental conditions and data transmission intervals will affect battery life, which typically ranges from 1-10 years. To preserve battery life, choose a wireless sensor with a built-in sleep mode.
  • Security: To follow the best security practices, only use wireless sensors that encrypt data during transmission. If the wireless sensors have a factory default username and password, make sure you change the password before installing the sensors.
Indoor farm

Can You Still Afford to Spend Time on Data Collection?

Under the glow of seemingly never-ending rows of LED lights, Kareem is meticulously tending to his garden.

Kareem is the Garden Operations Manager of an indoor farm that started with a modest 1,200 sq ft canopy and will soon expand to 120,000 sq ft (almost two soccer fields).

Everyday, between managing seeding, harvesting, packaging, cleaning and delivery, Kareem carves out one hour to go around the farm with hand meters and collect data about the farm’s light, air and nutrient solutions.

Well, one hour is a good day. When Kareem is away, it takes his team two to four hours. With the expansion looming, Kareem’s time is becoming more precious.

Should Kareem’s business go wireless?

Wireless sensors offer a number of advantages compared to the current system:

  • Data collection is automatic and saves 1-4 hours of labor time per day
  • Kareem will have more time to oversee the garden expansion, train staff training, and improve the growing process
  • Data collection is continuous which provides more information to the farm
  • Sudden changes are detected immediately instead of after 24 hours
  • The system can easily scale in the new 120,000 sq ft garden
  • Recording errors won’t happen anymore

Sound like a no-brainer?

Not quite. While Kareem is excited to reclaim his time, he’s wary of system costs. In order to make a more informed decision, he decided to compare the cost of his pen and paper system to a wireless sensor system.

Automated Data Collection Reclaimed Time & Reduced Costs by 71%

Let’s quickly run through the operating cost of Kareem’s existing pen and paper system, and compare it with the cost of a wireless system.

His company initially invested $1,800 in hand meters and thermostats to monitor light, air, and nutrient solution conditions. Each week, Kareem and his team spend 9 hours collecting data. There’s no set cadence for transcribing and inputting the data into a computer, so the time cost is estimated to be 1 hour/week. Kareem manages a majority of this process and earns a salary of $30/hour.

There also is an opportunity cost that is more difficult to quantify. Instead of investing time in overseeing the garden expansion, training staff or improving the growing process, Kareem is performing unskilled labor.

To replace the hand meters, Kareem needs 30 wireless sensors. The only recurring cost is the Kosmos software subscription to store, visualize and analyze the sensor data. Installation of the wireless sensors won’t disrupt production, and only brief training is required.

Fixed CostAnnual Cost
Pen and Paper$1,800 $15,600
Wireless Sensors$5,600$4,500

Kareem’s business will recoup the cost of the wireless sensor system in 8 months. Annually, the company saves $11,100 in labor costs and Kareem get back time he desperately needs. For Kareem, going wireless makes good business sense.

Data-Driven Decision Making

In addition to providing immediate cost savings, going wireless provides rich data sets. Imagine if you could predict when your machine would fail or identify production bottlenecks that were previously invisible?

Going wireless makes all of the above possible. If you’d like to speak with someone about how your business could benefit from going wireless, email hey@temboo.com.

If you’d like to read more about data-driven decision making, read our article, “The Industry 4.0 Mega Guide: 6 Commonly Asked Questions, Answered.”

Posted by:Sarah McMillian, Product Outreach

Sarah is on the Product Outreach team at Temboo. Using her background in mechanical engineering, she helps manufacturers and other types of businesses do more with IoT. Sarah keeps podcasts on tech + society in heavy rotation, and has worked in four continents.