Everactive: Battery-Free IoT Sensors for Industrial IoT
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We recently wrote about solar-powered sensors in the forests that detect forest fires and send alerts to Starlink satellites. SpaceX has moved into IoT with their acquisition of Swarm Technologies which means there will soon be loads of cheap connectivity for IoT sensors. Elon Musk appears to have solved the IoT connectivity problem, and this means a whole slew of use cases will open up.
Being able to talk to a satellite from anywhere in the world means that companies can now begin to monitor things in remote areas such as open-pit mining operations or oil and gas pipelines. Deploying IoT sensors to monitor critical functions sounds like a great plan today, but not so great when it comes time to start replacing batteries.
Batteries Not Included
Right now, the battery industry is scrambling to develop an IoT battery that stays charged for 10 years, but even that lifespan is problematic. If, as the experts predict, we eventually have one trillion IoT sensors in the field, we’d need to change 274 million batteries a day if we achieved that 10-year lifespan we’re aiming for. The most economically viable IoT sensor will be one that doesn’t use batteries. That’s not just because batteries need to be changed. Other problems with using batteries for IoT sensors include:
- Batteries’ finite lifespans can lead to gaps in mission-critical data
- To conserve battery life, sensors are often configured to transmit data less frequently
- A battery’s physical dimensions can limit sensor functionality
- Batteries can create safety risks and cause environmental harm
A few years ago, we wrote about Battery-Free Bluetooth Tracking Tags From Wiliot. The types of sensors we’re going to talk about today can do a whole lot more than just identify an object’s location.
Founded in 2012, Silicon Valley’s own Everactive has taken in just over $114 million in funding from investors that include dividend king 3M, industrial robotics leader ABB, and Swedish telecommunication company Ericsson. That money has been used to build sensors that require such minuscule power they can sense, process, and wirelessly transmit data continuously by harvesting energy from their environment. Sources of energy include indoor solar (even dimly lit facilities down to 100 Lux), thermal gradients, radio frequencies, vibration, and more.
Environmental attributes that can be sensed continuously include ambient temperature, remote temperature, humidity, light, vibration, acceleration, acoustic, pressure, and even various gases. Power requirements for these tasks are up to 1,000x lower than competing solutions.
If you’re looking to implement Everactive sensors, they’re offered “as-a-service,” so the company takes care of everything – hardware, configuration, wireless networking, and data management – and you just monitor the output from a dashboard. (The sensors are rated for 20-years without requiring any routine maintenance.) Initial applications Everactive is focused on include steam trap monitoring and machine health monitoring.
Steam Trap Monitoring
Those of you who shower before work probably don’t know what a steam trap is. It’s commonly found in buildings that house steam boilers, varying from huge electric utility plants to small refinery plants, or commercial businesses such as a bakery or a dry cleaner. A large refinery plant may have 5,000 to 6,000 steam traps, special purpose valves which open when condensate is present and close when steam tries to pass thru them. We’ll show you the below diagram and you can just nod your head and pretend like it all makes sense.
People who shower after work are often tasked with checking the many types of steam traps that exist because if they fail, it costs a lot of money. According to a report from the Federal Energy Management Program, roughly 20% of the steam leaving a typical facility’s central boiler plant in space heating applications is lost due to leaking steam traps. A failed 1/8-inch steam trap can cost a company thousands of dollars per year.
The cost of physical steam trap inspections will be roughly $12 per trap, so a plant with 5,000 steam traps will spend $720,000 a year on monthly checks. Using real-time monitoring, it’s easy to imagine success stories that look like this one:
One company that realized the benefits of monitoring steam traps in real-time was food giant Hershey. A group of 20 plant maintenance personnel at a Hershey’s plant completed training in thermal imaging and ultrasonics to do their own manual audits and spot checks of their steam system. It was an uphill battle until they adopted Everactive. Now they’re saving thousands of dollars a year and considering adopting additional Everactive battery-free IoT sensors for machine health monitoring.
Machine Health Monitoring
A vibration analyst is someone who goes around listening to how industrial machines vibrate to observe and diagnose potential failure points. If you want to hire a vibration analyst in the top quartile of high performers, prepare to pay about six figures for their time. If you’re paying someone that much, you don’t want them doing menial tasks – like data collection.
Everactive has a case study about a firm called Eastpoint Reliability and a vibration analyst called Rob who spends an average of five hours collecting vibration data at a typical site. Sometimes, the process can take several days, and often requires special work permits, personal protective equipment (PPE) for working at heights, or other precautionary measures to comply with a customer’s policies. The Rona made Rob’s life even worse when facilities didn’t want contractors on site.
Then Rob’s life changed when he heard a podcast talking about Everactive’s Machine Health Monitoring (MHM) solution where self-powered sensors let vibration analysts remotely and continuously monitor machinery to increase coverage, maximize service reliability, and equipment uptime. Rob got promoted for thinking outside the box, and is now able to spend more time with his future ex-wife.
Ticking All the Boxes
Corporations are always demanding that their management teams do more with less, something that becomes increasingly important during times of economic turmoil. If you’re a plant manager, you might have KPIs that look something like this:
- Reduce personnel costs by 10%
- Do something green to appease the ESG types
- Reduce downtime by keeping plant operational 95% of the time
- Evaluate new technologies to bring plant into 21st century
Everactive just sorted you out by ticking all those boxes. It’s an “as-a-service” solution that becomes even more attractive if there’s a recession. This is the type of business we love.
Over time, Everactive will be accumulating a large amount of data that they can then use for predictive maintenance or to create digital twins of factories. (See our past piece on How Predictive Maintenance Can Use Machine Learning.) If the opportunity seems large in the United States, there’s a lot more low-hanging fruit if they start looking outside her borders.
Instead of trying to increase IoT sensor battery life like everyone else, Everactive employed first principles thinking and decided a battery wasn’t even needed. They’ve set a new bar for other companies trying to build IoT sensors. An “as a service” business model that takes care of all the hassle makes the solution easy to adopt for any company that wants a handful of quick wins before bonus season rolls around.