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In the belief that the sensor sector could be a microcosm of the whole national economy, Tony Ingham of Sensor Technology looks at what it will take to run a small technology company beyond 2010.

You might think it perverse to say something positive about the recent recession, but it had a characteristic that I have rarely seen before.

It helped a lot of people realise what really makes economies tick.

In previous recessions, most peoples’ reaction was to work harder on winning sales.

This time though, people saw the weaknesses of the whole financial sector and began to analyse how and why economies work.

There has been a realisation that there is a massive difference between fast paper profits and fundamental wealth creation.

The engine room of the economy is not the City of London – instead, it is the primary industries, such as manufacturing and agriculture.

These create thousands of jobs up and down the country, rather than concentrating so much wealth into the hands of a few lucky individuals that they become divorced from economic reality.

In fact, manufacturing, engineering, science and technology have all fared relatively well over the last couple of years, with most of the pain being felt in other sectors.

So it is not that surprising that manufacturing is currently our strongest sector – but it is important that it remains that way.

Manufacturing can be wonderfully profitable if managed correctly over the whole term of its products’ lifecycles.

It creates masses of jobs at all levels and even more in supporting sectors such as research, development, engineering and design.

Its products are easily exportable, so will suck overseas revenues into our coffers.

It is also very stable, as the need for capital production equipment, highly skilled staff and a sophisticated supporting infrastructure makes it relatively difficult to relocate once it is established.

At the moment, the government is full of praise for manufacturing, but this simply is not enough.

This and future governments must support manufacturing and the other technical industries.

It needs to develop policies that encourage and promote manufacturing, help exporters, support enterprise and finance RandD.

It’s a big ask, but the Chinese and Indians are doing it; the Japanese and Germans did it 50 years ago and the Americans did it 50 years before them.

So where does the sensor sector fit into all this? Well sensors are now widely used across so many areas that they are a bell-weather for the whole economy.

Overall, the sensor sector weathered the downturn well.

Early in the recession, many car makers and other major industries shut down production for three months to reduce stock.

But they also took the opportunity to invest in new manufacturing systems, including sensors.

Furthermore, sensors are very exportable, so manufacturers often remained busy servicing clients abroad.

And while the recession was bad, the sectors that suffered the most, such as finance and banking, were not major direct purchasers of sensors.

The UK sensors sector is currently underdeveloped, so offers many opportunities for building strong manufacturing companies that could easily become world leaders and major exporters.

The sector got going on a worldwide basis in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when traditional craft-based instrument making was giving way to sophisticated manufacture of high-tech sensors.

Unfortunately, at this time, manufacturing was not in favour in the UK.

Instead, the government of the day was happily clearing away what it saw as union-infested, decrepit, smokestack industries, so that new sunrise industries could take root, in a free market, without government support.

So while the UK got call centres and pension advisors, sensor manufacturing flourished in countries where capital enterprise was supported, where labour forces did not have a black name, where a growing manufacturing sector provided a domestic market.

I must at this point say that there were exceptions, notably our own company Sensor Technology which researches, designs, develops and manufactures sensors in the centre of England.

It is a self-evident truth that what we have achieved could be replicated by other sensor manufacturers, especially if general UK manufacturing grows.

There is a virtuous circle to be developed.

The more sensors that are used, the greater the manufacturing volumes – this lowers unit prices and also allows investment in automated production and improved quality systems, which encourages yet more usage.

The driving forces for the development of sensor technology include miniaturisation, robust solid-state controllers replacing delicate mechanisms, wireless solutions, increasing intelligence, improved connectivity and open communications.

New drivers will emerge and new markets will open up.

Since Sensor Technology first set out its stall, cars have gone from having a handful of sensors to literally thousands, factories have become automated, soaking up sensors, entirely new markets have opened up, such as home electronics, mobile devices, medical equipment, CCTV and surveillance.

Future growth will be even greater, and it is there for the taking – hopefully by a strong UK sensor manufacturing industry.

Sensor Technology

Sensor Technology are manufacturers of TORQSENSE Transducers, the world’s first low cost non-contact rotary torque transducers designed for OEM applications. Rotary torque measurement has always been difficult and expensive.

The patented method uses a surface acoustic wave device as a frequency dependent strain gauge and measures the change in resonant frequency caused by the applied strain in the shaft.

The signal is transmitted via an RF couple from the rotating shaft to a fixed pick-up.

By using a frequency-based device, the signal bandwidth is increased, and the problem of electronic interference common with analogue signals is eliminated. The torque sensors are designed to operate direct from a PLC or a PC.

They require minimum length of shaft, have low inertia, no physical contact between shaft and housing, wide bandwidth, high resolution and accuracy resolution to better than one part in a million, and excellent noise immunity.

The technology lends itself to design of OEM transducers for specific customer applications. Applications include automotive, manufacturing machines, condition monitoring where knowledge of torque is critical, torque control of tightening procedures, and monitoring of viscosity during mixing where consistency is required. The technology replaces existing types of rotary torque sensors by providing better performance at a lower price.

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