Sensors are shrinking and will soon be everywhere


​Sensors work like human senses: they monitor the environment and provide information about any changes in it. VTT has been developing sensor technology for a long time, especially for the control of industrial processes. Now, development is moving towards high-performance, smaller, lighter and more affordable sensors as well as new applications.

In the field of measurement technology, a major trend over the last ten years has been the emergence of sensors that have high performance but are also affordable and small. These new types of sensors measure the same things as large, expensive and complex laboratory instruments did 10 to 20 years ago.

In the future, it will be possible to utilise high-performance and versatile sensors everywhere from industry to agriculture, transport to health care and from mobile devices to home appliances. Principal Scientist Mauri Aikio from VTT sees potential for new kinds of sensors, for example, in solving environmental problems. Measurement that is more accurate, enables cleaner processes and reduces both energy consumption and the use of raw materials. Sensors are also used to improve the recycling of materials and, for example, the separation of different types of plastics.

Sensor technology also contributes to health and safety. Sensors can be utilised, among other things, to measure the quality of food and clean water. In the area of health, they are used to address the challenges of an ageing population and to develop methods for self-care and monitoring your health at home.

One of the major drivers in the sensor industry is now vehicles, the electrification of their power lines, communication between vehicles, and autonomous vehicles. In traffic, sensors are already improving safety in good weather by providing information on road conditions and road users, and VTT is working with European car manufacturers to develop solutions for more challenging conditions. The new vehicle sensor technologies can also be applied to automated machines and robots, creating great digitalisation opportunities for Finnish companies.

More than 40 years of development work

VTT has been developing optical measurement technology and silicon-based sensor technology for over 40 years. Research has been carried out in close cooperation with universities and industrial end-users with the support of Business Finland, the Academy of Finland or the European Union. However, increasing the maturity of knowledge and technology often takes a surprisingly long time in research. Spin-off companies are often backed by up to decades of basic and applied research.

“VTT and Vaisala were developing the Humicap technology, which is also used today, as early as in the 1970s. The foundation for the current microspectrometer technology based on a micromechanical Fabry-Perot interferometer was created in the 1990s. Another good example is the long-standing cooperation between VTT and Valmet in the development of sensors for paper machines. Valmet is a world leader in paper machine automation and uses the best solutions for quality control. A significant portion of these sensors have been developed in cooperation with VTT.”

Innovations have generated around a dozen start-up companies originating from VTT in the industry, employing hundreds of people.

One interesting example is Spectral Engines Oy, which miniaturises sensor technology and develops it to suit consumer products as well.

“We bring traditionally expensive material identification solutions into more widespread use in smart industry, agriculture and homes. Our solutions are suitable, for example, for police to identify drugs or for farmers to measure the protein content of agricultural products. On the consumer side, we have developed a sensor that B/S/H utilises to automate washing machines, that is, to identify materials and stains, and further to automate washing machines”, says Chief Commercial Officer Janne Suhonen from Spectral Engines Oy. “Our solutions are based on a spectral sensor developed at VTT that we have commercialised. It is a microelectromechanical component based on semiconductor technology that can be manufactured cost-effectively in a small size.”

Sensor industry start-up companies from VTT

  • Spectral Engines Oy
  • GrainSense Ltd
  • Helmee Imaging Ltd
  • TimeGate Instruments Ltd
  • Focalspec Ltd
  • Specim, Spectral Imaging Oy Ltd
  • BioMensio Ltd
  • Quanturi Ltd
  • Asqella Oy
  • Advacam Oy

Start-up companies play a strong role in commercialisation

In the development of sensor technology, the operating culture has become start-up driven. Industrial end-users have measurement needs for which VTT and research institutes, among others, are developing solutions. An operator is needed between the end-user and developers to be responsible for the commercialisation of methods around the world.

Long-term cooperation and competence development have created a strong and highly cooperative ecosystem in the field of sensor technology in Finland. An example of this is the Apassi project entity launched in the spring that consists of nine different research projects. The driving companies are Valmet and Outotec, for which smaller technology companies are developing new process control solutions. The aim is to provide the companies with a clear commercial advantage and increase their annual turnover by approximately EUR 0.5 billion.

Antti Kemppainen
Antti Kemppainen
Solution Sales Lead, Sensing Solutions
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