How Sensors Add Value

What practical role do sensors play in a machine shop?

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Manufacturers today are confronting a dramatically changing world when it comes to the technology and tools they are using—or should be using. Take sensors, for example. It’s likely you’ve heard a lot about them, but what practical role do they actually play in a working machine shop?

At Pier 9, Autodesk’s manufacturing facility in San Francisco, the company has the opportunity to test out new technologies in a “hands-on” manner rather than making theoretical assumptions about their utility. Here are two areas in which Autodesk uses sensors to optimize manufacturing processes:

Toolpath optimization. Within the Pier 9 facility, we use a tool from Pro-Micron called the Spike, a sensor mounted in a traditional toolholder that wirelessly transmits data about loads and temperature. By streaming data of the cutting action as it is taking place, the sensor puts us in a better position to ask—and answer—questions such as: How hard and how fast can we can run a certain combination of machine tools and materials? Are there areas where can we run it even harder and faster? Alternately, are there areas where we are reducing the optimized tool path?

Monitoring the data coming in from this sensory toolholder allows us to actually see the spikes in load when, for example, the tool goes into internal corners and drives into slots—areas where the tool is most prone to breakage. The ability to view these spikes presents a significant advantage over the traditional method of “tuning by ear.” Instead of making adjustments in an ad hoc manner, we can use the incoming data to predict problems ahead of an actual occurrence and make informed decisions to avoid those problems. You can learn more about the Spike from Pro-Micron at

Energy optimization. Energy isn’t just a precious commodity. It’s a significant factor in whether a machine shop’s bottom line is red or black. Wouldn’t it be advantageous to get some more insight into energy consumption patterns within your operation? Sensors can provide significant value in this area.

At Pier 9, we use an app for cloud-based energy management of buildings and factories. This app uses wireless, non-intrusive, self-powered sensor technology from Panoramic Power to deliver real-time electricity data that can be used for actionable insight into energy management and equipment maintenance. Go to for more details about this app.

Once again, this increased level of data puts us in a position to ask and answer basic questions such as: When am I using energy? Should I be running my business differently to save even more money by shifting consumption to the evening and running the night shift? Where else are there opportunities for energy savings?

What both these examples demonstrate is that sensors are a valuable tool that machine shops can use to gather data and optimize their processes. And to be clear, anybody can use sensors to improve their manufacturing ability.  The technology described in the examples above is readily available to shops of any size.

In the future, almost every aspect of the manufacturing process will involve sensors. The sooner manufacturers start thinking about ways they can incorporate sensors to collect data and make informed decisions, the better positioned they’ll be in a rapidly transforming manufacturing landscape.