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Developing a sensor system

Introduction

Development of a sensor system may range from installing an off-the-shelf sensor to developing a custom, turn-key sensor system. The success of such development depends on technical, management, and financial factors. If you are considering developing a sensor for your application, this note will help you to understand the development process. It details steps that MJC Optical Technology (MJC) may take in close cooperation with you to complete such development.

A sensor development project typically consists of three phases: preparation, implementation, and support. The preparation phase includes mainly conceptual activities such as quantitative understanding of the object to be sensed (a product, defect, or process), identification of sensing technology, and developing sensor specification. The implementation phase includes sensor design and development activities. Finally, the support phase makes sure that you do not feel left alone with the newly acquired instrumentation and there is someone who will help you to smoothly include that instrumentation into the operation of your facility.

This note is necessarily general. Depending on the complexity of your application some topics may not apply or may apply to an extent different than that discussed.
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Effective communication

The success of a sensor development project depends strongly on effective communication and cooperation between you, the client, and us, the developer. Such a project is an iterative process and typically involves tradeoffs dictated by technical and financial constraints among others. Settling for a mutually acceptable solution in a reasonable number of iterations requires effective and efficient communication pathways.
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Preparation phase

Identification of sensing technology

The development of a sensor system begins with identification of applicable sensing technologies. This requires that we at MJC develop a thorough quantitative understanding of your product, production process, or research samples. In some cases, typically in industrial applications, it may be necessary for us to visit your facility and see what constraints it places on the sensing technology and sensor design. This information permits us to develop a conceptual model of relevant characteristic(s) of your product, sample, defect, and/or process which is crucial in selecting a sensing technology. With this model we can set out to identify sensing technologies which are most likely to succeed. We will also advise you on

  • what parameters of the product / material can be sensed with each selected technology
  • how each technology works
  • what do these technologies require.

This should enable you to identify constraints which may be placed on your product / sample handling, or on the production process. Our role at this stage is to select potential technologies and make sure that you understand what each technology can do and what are its requirements. Your role, as an expert in your product, sample, or production process, is to evaluate implications of these requirements for your application. At this time, we may also formulate preliminary ideas about the sensor system and discuss these ideas with you so that you can evaluate their implications.
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Development of the sensor specification

Having settled for a candidate sensing technology, we can now adapt or create its mathematical model. This model permits us to develop a concept design of the sensor and establish or validate the sensor specification.

Values and ranges of some parameters of the model may be unknown at this stage. For example, assume that your present defect detection technique is based on visual inspection. A skilled operator may spot the defect but he/she would not know the numerical difference between a "signal" from the defect and from a non-defective area of the product. If such is the case, we may need to develop a test fixture and use it to measure relevant parameters in a representative set of samples (with and without defects) provided by you.

Concept design of the sensor relies on your feedback as the prospective user of the sensor as some tradeoffs usually have to be made. These tradeoffs are based on considerations of the performance, reliability, ease of use, time planned for the development of the system, and on the financial investment which you consider justifiable.
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Estimation

MJC can now prepare an estimate which includes the project time-table as well as a time-table and magnitude of funds which you will need to invest in the project. We also examine potential technical and procurement challenges and outline specific contingency procedures to address these challenges.

An estimate is by definition approximate. Its accuracy and precision depend on the project stage. As a project evolves, accuracy and precision of the estimate increase. In a "cutting edge" project, it may be inpossible to give the total project estimate before a critical part of the project is researched as a mini-project.
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Implementation phase

Design and construction

With the concept design and estimate approved by you, MJC can begin design and construction of the sensor system. In a complex application, one or more generations of sensor prototypes may need to be built before the final sensor is constructed. Development of a generation draws on experience obtained while developing the previous generation.

Project reviews are instituted at key milestones during the sensor development cycle to ensure that

  • you can verify the project's progress
  • you can make informed decisions about the project
  • we keep the development process under tight control

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Installation/testing of the sensor

After the sensor or its prototype has been developed, it is installed by MJC at your plant / facility and your personnel are trained in the sensor operation. If evaluation is required, a test period is established which is expected to generate a sufficient evaluation data set. During the test period, both the new sensor and your current sensing procedure (if it exists) are both used to examine the same set of samples. The data gathered are used to determine whether the projected system performance has been achieved and what modifications, if any, need to be made to the sensor system or to the way it is used. In a complex application, this step may be followed by the development of the next-generation sensor prototype.
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Development of additional sensors

If a quantity of sensors required to fit your production / research volume will exceed our prototype development capacity we may choose to propose a high-volume manufacturer. If you desire, MJC may supervise the manufacturing process, and train the installers of the sensor systems. MJC may also implement a review program aimed at perfecting the sensor as part of development of these additional sensors. Such a review program sets in place field-test and user-feedback procedures and permits you to continue improving the sensor to reflect your evolving production process and product specifications.
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Documentation

In a complex project, at the time a prototype sensor is installed at your facility we can provide you only with preliminary documentation. However, at or following the installation of the final sensor, MJC will provide complete technical documentation of the developed sensor system. Such documentation typically

  • describes the sensor construction and operation
  • describes the sensor design rationales
  • discusses reasons for selecting specific design alternatives
  • provides instructions for system operation and maintenance
  • outlines troubleshooting procedures to assist your personnel in identifying and correcting potential problems in routine sensor operation.

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Support phase

MJC provide technical support regarding the sensor operation and may, at your request, also assist you in the interpretation of measurement results. Technical support is usually executed by phone and other means of remote communication.
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