Data Acquisition Systems (DAQ) and Equipment

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Quick Facts about Today's DAQ*

DAQ are used in four primary areas:

  • Utilities (SCADA)

  • Manufacturing/Processing (control systems)

  • Scientific (data collection for experiments)

  • Business (just-in-time, inventory control, real-time, work-in-progress, shipments)

Top Suppliers/Manufacturers of DAQ hardware:

  • Rockwell Automation

  • National Instruments (NI)

  • GE Fanuc

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What is a data acquisition (DAQ) system?

A data acquisition (DAQ) system is a combination of tools and /or processes that are used to gather, analyze and record information about some phenomenon. Data acquisition (DAQ) products for can be divided into two general categories: hardware and software.

The diagram below illustrates the use of data acquisition in a typical industrial process:

components of a data acquisition system

Let's go through the process above one step at a time:

  1. Some physical phenomenon occurs. e.g., a change in pressure in process piping, a change in temperature in a heat exchanger, etc. The phenomenon causes a sensor, flowmeter, load cell or transducer to electrically change state.
    and /or this industrial process system receives a digital or analog signal from another industrial process system. An example of this comes from the food industry: one system may control (specializes in) recipe batching (mixing of ingredients); another process system is dedicated to cooking or sterilization; yet another system is dedicated to packaging, warehousing, and so on. The systems are isolated because different, specialized vendors were called in to install systems they specialized in. The different systems are linked via Ethernet data highways.

  2. If the signal is high-voltage, "noisy" or "quiet" (low level), it may need to be filtered, attenuated or amplified, respectively, before reaching data acquisition (DAQ) hardware. A signal conditioner is the tool for such a purpose. Often, a signal conditioner will output digital data.

  3. After leaving the signal conditioner the signal finally enters data acquisition (DAQ) hardware. DAQ hardware may be located as an external (stand-alone) rack-mounted unit or it may be installed inside a PC (much like a sound or video card).

  4. A PC terminal -- with data acquisition (DAQ) drivers installed and running special data acquisition (DAQ) software -- is used to process, record and analyze the information received by the DAQ hardware. The information is used to control the process system; it may do this by interfacing with a programmable logic controller (PLC). A data logger -- such as chart recorder -- may also be used if a "hard copy" is necessary. In the strictly-government-regulated food industry, the FDA may require a chart recorder to record data live. Hence, one (of the several) outputs from an input device -- pressure transducer, RTD ,etc. -- may be wired directly into the data logger (chart recorder). Many new data loggers are hybrid models: they simultaneously write charts and save data onto memory or an internal drive.

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Types of Data Acquisition Systems

Three general usage types:

  1. Laboratory

  2. Distributed

  3. Portable

Laboratory and distributed DAQ systems are normally put in a permanent location as these are comprised of relatively large or bulky hardware and connect to desktop PCs in some way. These systems depend upon the PC to access, process, and analyze input data and prepare it for some type of presentation. Portable DAQ systems, on the other hand, are small, lightweight units that are easily carried by hand and work with laptops or, even, no computer at all when installed at a location or site to only record data.

Laboratory and distributed data-acquisition systems typically adhere to industry-based packaging standards. For instance, some laboratory systems are mounted in standard 19-inch racks while distributed systems often use track mountings. A subset of these systems includes a host computer that accommodates data-acquisition plug-in boards. Portable systems, in contrast, have no real standardized form -- they may come in various sizes and shapes, but they are typically small and light. Further, portable systems are additionally classified as either stand-alone units or those which connect to a PC. Stand-alone units are self-contained data loggers and don't need a PC connection to function.

Most modern data-acquisition systems, regardless of form factor, do their intended tasks very well; i.e., they acquire and process data. All systems have several factors in common; they need signal conditioners to convert sensor signals and other electrical inputs to a form that a processor can handle. They also have a wide variety of analog input channels varying in number from two to several hundred -- or even thousands. Further, inputs may or may not be isolated, and either single-ended or differential, or both. Of the three types, portable systems are gaining a larger market share as the other (legacy) systems age, and these portable systems are increasingly outperforming them. Further, the new portable systems can be easily configured for laboratories and distributed systems as well as portable applications. When considering a data acquisition system to purchase, however, the most important functional parameters that differentiate them include accuracy, resolution, and sampling rate.

Above: Some data acquisition systems are: very compact, available in in modular form, and can measure voltages and thermocouples on every analog channel. An example of of such a system is IOTech’s Personal Daq/3000. It features 16-bit, 1-MHz analog-to-digital conversion, with 16 inputs and counter.

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