Pulp and Paper Canada

Cheap sensors:

November 1, 2000  By Pulp & Paper Canada

This first decade of the new millennium will be the decade for interactive technologies, where sensors will be small, cheap and offer many new capabilities. If there is a process parameter or product …

This first decade of the new millennium will be the decade for interactive technologies, where sensors will be small, cheap and offer many new capabilities. If there is a process parameter or product attribute that’s important to know, it will be measured. What’s more, there will be wireless connections to information sharing and computational power for extracting maximum value from such sensor signals. The implications are certainly for big

gains in manufacturing efficiency, but there is the potential for new paradigms in product quality and markets. This may be expressed in a move from grade pricing to quality pricing for paper; the emergence of “smart packaging,” and the promised reality of “mass customization.” These represent new competitive quality attributes for exploitation.


According to the Institute for the Future, breakthrough, enabling technologies come in 10-year cycles. Building on the microprocessor and laser technologies of past decades will come small, low cost [pennies!] sensors. This capability will have profound implications. For example: clothing with GPS sensors that allow you to know where your child is anytime anywhere; unique identification “tags” built into any object that can be read with radio frequency [RF] activation; a “find me” sensor [with built-in power supply and laser] the size of a dust particle that will cost $0.10; smart road studs that signal hazards; a camera that is swallowed to view your digestive/intestinal tract [remember the movie Fantastic Voyage?]. The point is that there is no limit to the ingenuity for smart, low-cost sensing capability coupled with cheap wireless computing power. Let’s look at some possibilities:

Bar coding systems are in common use for inventory management of paper rolls, supplies and pulp bales; RF activated sensors would enable a higher level of product customization, together with remote tracking, order fulfillment and service. Cheap sensors that can measure paper properties such as brightness, surface characteristics, printability, uniformity, defects [such as lint, dot skips, ink holdout] would allow the producer and customer to have a common “quality language.” The current language centres around broad grade specifications that are [almost] meaningless to the printer and publisher, who are concerned only with cost and performance in their own context. A possible scenario would see the continued blurring of grades to a continuum of “quality pricing,” where the transaction price is determined by a unique set of quality expectations depending on the end-product job. This scenario might also be facilitated by the newer manufacturing capabilities of film coating / surface treatment and soft-nip calendaring. It is interesting that the paper community describes its products by the manufacturing method or machinery used, rather than with product-use characteristics that the customer and eventual consumer can relate to. Cheap sensors may thus force a needed transition from “you buy what we make” to “we will make what you need” — a transition that other manufacturing sectors have faced [e.g. autos, airlines, computers, software]. This is the path from “mass production” to “mass customization” where the trade-off around cost and productivity is replaced with the flexibility to produce tailored goods and services. This flexibility is the new basis for competitiveness.

Why is this important?

Cheap, small sensors are going to be pervasive over the next 10 years; how can this be exploited to enhance competitiveness? Perhaps there is an opportunity for the development of unique sensors compatible with custom paper grades and end-use products. Examples of this are the introduction of sensors into packaging materials that alert to unwanted environmental or security diversions [e.g. humidity, temperature, tampering]; sensors in magazine pages that provide readable links to web pages — this trend is likely to find a place in future newspapers also; manufacturers, distributors and retailers that can “talk” to their products throughout the supply chain. At least one paper company has already teamed up with the IT sector — the beginning of a trend whose time has come! P&PC

Alan R. Procter can be reached at a.r._procter@telus.net; for more information, visit www.futureviews.net

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