Many industries depend on the accurate recording of environmental data. For example:
- Excess temperature or humidity can cause merchandise in warehouses to deteriorate or food products in refrigerated trucks to spoil.
- Without knowing the temperature inside sterilizers or cleanrooms, medical equipment and sensitive electronics cannot be guaranteed to function properly, possibly putting whole economies or even lives in jeopardy.
- Greenhouses and agricultural enterprises must keep track of temperature and soil moisture to ensure the successful growth of crucial plant products.
- Environmental scientists require accurate readings of temperature, pressure, and vibrations to predict the weather, speciation, and earthquakes.
- The manufacturing and aviation industries depend on accurate readings of machinery voltage, fuel flow pressure in engines and tanks, and stress or strain on components.
The list goes on and on. Many of these industries depend on accurate environmental condition readings to comply with stringent regulations.
The conditions required to achieve states like sterilization have scarcely changed, any more than the basic laws of physics have changed. What has leapt forward is the technology available to record those conditions. Data loggers have come a long way, marching in time with the technologies they support and enabling life-changing, even life-saving modalities.
Here’s a brief history of data loggers, as well as a look at what’s to come.
Before Automated Data Loggers
Scientists and technicians have been able to accurately track conditions for hundreds of years. The first thermometer dates back to 1714, invented by a man whose name might ring a bell—the German physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit.
Before the invention of automated data recorders, however, those scientists and technicians who wanted to record conditions had to log data the old-fashioned way—check the sensor readings with a pair of human eyes, and then write down each data reading by hand. It was an enormous drain in human labor, interrupted by humans’ inconvenient need to sleep, eat, and go to the bathroom.
Humble Beginnings: Chart Recorders
Chart recorders look primitive now, but they were a tremendous innovation—a machine that could tirelessly track data, day and night, for human analysis.
The electronic chart recorder was invented by Charles Babbage for the railroad industry, incorporated into a train car he designed in 1838 and 1839. In 1888, William Henry Bristol obtained a patent for a “Pressure Indicator and Recorder,” an adaptation of the chart recorder to track ambient pressure. J.C. Stevens obtained a patent for the first environmental chart recorder in 1915.
Chart recorders work by pulling a piece of paper tape through a conveyor, past a pen tip that vibrates based on the electrical signal produced by the sensor. It creates a wavy or squiggly line on the paper tape, providing a visual record of the conditions at the time the paper tape passed under the pen. It’s like a time-stamped two axis graph.
For the first time, humans did not have to expend manpower to record data at periodic intervals. However, the data recorded on the tape still had to be assessed through a pair of human eyes. It was a big step in terms of automation, but still time-consuming to process.
The Digital Leap Forward
Digital data loggers replaced chart recorders as a result of advances in microprocessor and digital storage technology.
The first digital data storage devices—the precursors of modern hard disks, solid state disks, and flash storage drives—came about in the 1940s. However, these early storage drives were prohibitively expensive and filled whole buildings.
The first microprocessor was introduced by Intel in 1971. It too was quite expensive compared to the benefit companies reaped from accurate data tracking.
Nevertheless, throughout the decades microprocessors got more powerful, data storage drives more compact, and both became more cost effective. In the early 1990s, the first digital data loggers came into being.
These data loggers used familiar technology like thermometers, voltmeters, and barometers. Instead of causing a pen to vibrate, however, the electronic signal from the sensor was translated by a microprocessor into time-stamped data and then imprinted on a digital storage drive.
Over time, data loggers were adapted for data retrieval by USB and for eventually WiFi and Cloud connectivity. Coding advances gave rise to software that could read and process that data into audit-friendly reports, reducing the amount of time humans had to spend combing through the data and compiling it into compliance briefs.
The Future of Data Loggers
As modern data loggers made by companies like Dickson get incorporated into the “Internet of Things” (IoT), the industry is poised to offer more and more products that can alert enterprises when conditions like temperature or pressure become dangerous.
This isn’t always cost-effective considering the transmission networks that enable alerts and push notifications are designed for streaming video, way more bandwidth than a digital data logger requires.
As the cost of IoT connectivity drops, data loggers will be able to do much more than record when and how a disaster occurred. They may be able to alert its users of a developing problem—for example, excess temperature in a refrigerated truck, excess moisture in a clean room—in time for users to react and correct the condition before unsafe conditions or costly product losses and service interruptions develop.
Data loggers will also benefit from the push to create smaller and more efficient batteries. The current lithium ion battery life of 2-3 weeks is not well-suited to long-term, automated data recording, especially for a power-sucking IoT device. As more efficient batteries are designed to last months instead of weeks, companies that couldn’t afford IoT intelligent data loggers will start to incorporate them for the first time.
From pen-and-paper to the chart recorder to the digital data logger to the Internet of Things, data loggers have come a long way. As they have grown more advanced, they have enabled enterprises to remain in step with a complex, constantly evolving regulatory landscape, as well as a growing understanding of the way environmental conditions affect enterprises.
The next generation of smarter, smaller, more powerful, and longer-lasting data loggers will arrive not a moment too soon.
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