Custom and practice

As users demand more and more from their equipment, data acquisition manufacturers have risen to the challenge providing greater choice and a system to meet every need. Julia Pierce reports.

With many companies using data acquisition products to monitor everything from engine performance to fluid control, it is not surprising that the industry is moving forward at quite a pace.

One of the latest trends is the development of self-customisation of products by users. Increasingly, producers of data acquisition tools are moving away from building instruments tailored to a certain application or industry. Instead, manufacturers and designers are creating more universal or customisable products that allow users to make their own decisions concerning the particular data channels that need to be connected in.

This means people can choose from highly configurable, programmable technologies to decide how and what they use to gather their data. With the variety of different tasks users are requiring instruments to perform, the trend is becoming increasingly important, said Ian Bell, marketing director for National Instruments, UK and Ireland. For this reason, manufacturers are working hard to make such products easy to program and use.

‘Our hardware is modular, so that people can connect in any sensor they need,’ explained Bell. ‘As it has a built-in language based on diagrams — a format that scientists and engineers are familiar with — they can write their own software. This allows them to do anything they see fit, and build their own customised virtual instruments.’

Another important development is the increase by manufacturers in the adoption of USB connections. ‘This is a rapidly growing area,’ said Bell. ‘Avoiding the need to open up or shut down the PC is important. Instead, users are becoming increasingly able to just plug items in and start recording their data within minutes. The use of USB really is making everything a lot simpler.’

National instruments’ latest products also feature the ability to auto-detect newly-added devices, before asking the user which channels they would like to use, as well as critical questions regarding the rate of data measurement, and where this information is to be stored.

‘The industry is now computer based rather than being built around industrial boxes,’ said Bell, adding that the change has been so marked that his company has dubbed it Instrumentation 2.0. ‘The advanced capabilities of the PC are what has allowed this,’ he explained. ‘Rather than being hardware based and developer defined, modern data acquisition systems are software based and customer designed. and this is proving popular.’

It is not just the larger, multinational companies that have been taking advantage of the flexibility provided by technological advances in the field of plug-and-play. West Sussex company Pelago designs data acquisition products for oceanic and coastal research, marine traffic systems, offshore surveying systems, hydrography, fresh water monitoring and weather monitoring.

The company has a data logging system under trial that should be released next month. Called the M7, the device allows for multiple plug-and-play daughterboard modules to be inserted into the main motherboard, depending on the needs of the task. The motherboard will then instantly recognise the additional part and its channels. The range of plug-in modules includes those able to measure temperature, humidity, pressure, turbidity and digital pulse count, while each board operates as a processing centre in its own right.

The M7 can be used for remote data collection in harsh environments using a battery pack or rack mounted. The entire unit is fully waterproof, and as each daughterboard is around the size of a matchbox, is also compact. This, say its designers, make it ideal for use in such applications as flow control in the oil and gas industries, or monitoring flue temperatures and emissions in power stations. Meanwhile, users can connect to the system using Wireless, Bluetooth and Lan, among other communications systems.

‘The unit is suitable for any industry in the world that wants to monitor data,’ said Pelago’s managing director David Brett. ‘Most data loggers are industry specific or are made for a certain task, but this is universal and parts can also be easily updated — each board plugs in like the parts used when making a PC.’

The ability to plug and play is cutting into downtime, allowing tasks to be carried out faster and more easily — and users are noticing the difference.

As well as their well-known involvement in the automotive industry, product-testing specialist MIRA has recently been undertaking data acquisition and control systems work for Airbus’ fuel testing division, measuring factors such as the pressures and temperatures within this for applications including an A380 refuelling test rig. As well as being a major purchaser of data acquisition tools, the company also modifies existing equipment or custom builds its own systems for some tasks, according to the demanding nature of the job.

‘For applications such as vehicle and crash test rigs, we need something that can acquire a high volume of data in a very short time,’ explained Peter Biggs, MIRA’s department manager for electrical engineering. He said that the resulting PC-based system can identify individual transducers and preconfigure the data channel to suit it. ‘The transducers can be hot-swapped if one is found to be faulty,’ said Biggs. ‘With a press of a button the system will accept the new one without having to be reconfigured.’

While such modifiable systems are rapidly becoming the face of the market, there have also been some interesting developments in the field of ready-made equipment, leading to the development of lighter systems that do not compromise on battery life.

Sonatest has been building on the success of its Soundscan 101, which is used widely in both the industrial and military sectors and was selected by NASA for use on the International Space Station and Shuttle Missions for air leak detection. The company’s recently-launched Railscan 125 was developed specifically for use in the rail testing market.

Rugged and waterproof, the unit is ideal for harsh working environments and features a transflective colour display that is daylight viewable, with a larger display area that is expandable for full-screen viewing. To aid ease of use the company has developed a new user-orientated menu navigation system, broken down into four key areas: calibration, measurement, utilities and memory.

It has also recently launched the Powerscan 450P digital flaw detector, designed to meet the needs of high penetration and good signal to noise testing requirements. This has already received UK approval from Serco Assurance for rail axle testing, and has been accepted by a world-leading forging company for critical inspection. The system improves upon the company’s Powerscan 400 system by being enhanced with a 450V square wave pulser and improved low frequency filter bands for 0.25MHz transducers.

It also features an improved user interface, full-screen expand mode and a lower pulse repetition frequency (PRF) setting. And as the unit is housed in a high-strength lightweight plastic enclosure and uses lightweight batteries, it is significantly lighter than its predecessor.

With such advances, ease of use has become the key driver for much change within the data acquisition industry. As customers have been demanding more and more from their equipment, so manufacturers have stepped up to meet the challenge. All of which means users will now no longer have to look far to find the system that is built — or can be built — to meet their every need.