It Pays to be Disruptive

It Pays to be Disruptive

Not the advice one expects from a parent or advice we would give to our children, is it? Yet for many engineers at ADI, disruptive behavior is something of a mantra, one which has resulted in a number of breakthroughs in our fifty-five year history. This is the story of one of those breakthroughs.

Some background, first.

This so-called digital world of ours actually starts with the sensing of signals that make up our world. For example, think your phone is a purely digital device? Behind every phone call, picture, video, or text is an analog signal which must be transmitted and then received. Now at some point in the process those analog signals do get converted into digital, because processors (the brains of the phone) are like computers; they only “understand” ones and zeros.

Certain analog signals (such as temperature, weight, flow and strain, among them) are harder than others to accurately convert into digital signals. The challenge is even greater in noisy, electrically active environments such as factory floors or test equipment. A good analogy is trying to carry on a conversation during a noisy party. That’s hard enough, but imagine the other person is speaking French and your job is to translate (convert) what they are saying into English to another person. Accuracy can suffer. Now, what if you were then asked to do the same for a German speaker? Or Dutch? Or Tagalog? No one person can likely do all languages, so you need to enlist others to help out.

Now let’s return to the noisy factory floor. There could be dozens of places where temperature readings must be taken by sensitive sensors and then converted into digital signals. Then there could also be a dozen more spots where the manufacturer needs to know the strain on a series of belts that run a conveyor system. And even more places where the flow of coolant needs to be monitored for safety. These and other monitoring and control systems sit on boards on which sit a number of chips that together process the signal and convert it to digital.

Those different signals (temperature, weight, strain, pressure etc.) have heretofore required different boards. Owners and operators of these facilities are, of course, always looking for a competitive edge. But upgrading meant replacing upwards of hundreds of boards at great cost. One marketing engineer with whom we spoke told us that about 60% of control systems cost comes from design, installation and training.

Several years ago, Analog Devices was approached by a leading manufacturer with this problem. Our engineers studied the problem and, working closely with the manufacturer, got a disruptive idea. Instead of one board for each type of measurement, what if one board could process all those different types of signals from those different types of sensors? Even more disruptive to sensing status quo, what if the boards could be programmed to process different signals. One day it processes temperature the next day, after a simple software reconfiguration, it can handle signals from a pressure monitor. (Kind of like having our party-going translator learning Dutch or Tagalog while you get a refill from the punch bowl.)

At the heart of this cost and time-saving solution is the AD4110-1 “universal input analog front end.” “Universal input” refers to the multitude of signals the solution can process. “Analog front end” is that part connecting to the sensor, whatever it may be measuring. Companies that choose the AD4110-1 can, in turn, offer their own universal, single sensing solution to their customers. Stocking their one board means volume purchasing – a cost saving that can be passed down. Training and support costs for the end user go down, as well, because there’s only one piece of hardware to learn.

There is obviously a lot of detail behind this approach. One can visit the AD4110-1 product page to learn more and download the datasheet. For designers who want to dive in and practice a little disruption of their own, ADI sells kits which plug into any Windows-based PC.

Disruption. See, mom and dad? It can be a good thing.