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You don’t notice them, but they’re always there — measuring, monitoring, helping you live a safer, more convenient life. Sensors have become widely used in manufacturing and are now commonplace in homes and personal items, from smartphones to cars to smart-home devices like robot vacuums, lights, thermostats, cameras and more. Sensors now track human health data, just like they track the health data of heavy equipment and machinery in factories.
In Happy Valley, sensors play a role in our research and business ecosystem, with extensive sensor research taking place at Penn State and several established sensor companies growing or starting up in the area.
Here’s why some local experts believe Happy Valley has an affinity for sensor technology and how they see them changing the world for the better.
Why Happy Valley is a sensor technology hot spot
For KCF Technologies, the “why” behind the company’s Happy Valley headquarters is clear. This is where the company got its start and there were never plans to grow anywhere else.
As Sean Buda, vice president of marketing, explained, KCF Technologies came out of Penn State research more than two decades ago. At that time, the company’s three founders, all Penn State researchers, including current CEO Jeremy Frank, were working on wireless vibration sensors for various government agencies.
As the sensors proved applicable in a broad range of applications, KCF’s reach expanded to more industries. As the company grew, it relied on adding more Penn State talent.
“When I started with KCF two-and-a-half years ago, I would say at least 70% of our company was from Penn State. Now, that continues to diversify, coming out of [the COVID-19 pandemic], as we become more of a global player,” Buda noted. “We’re operating on six different continents, with over 600 manufacturing locations, as we scale our business.”
Still, its global reach doesn’t tempt KCF to relocate. The company is deeply embedded in the Penn State community, through athletics sponsorships, internship programs and high quality of life for its employees. Buda has an optimistic outlook on continuing to grow as a global business from central Pennsylvania.
“Every June, we hold an industry-wide manufacturing event in Happy Valley and, last year, we had 250 people attend from around the world,” he said. “State College is becoming an easier place to do business, with some great venues… If we were to do this… 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been quite as easy.”
Another sensor innovator with a strong Penn State connection is Larry Cheng, Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics at Penn State. We’ve covered Dr. Cheng’s research many times in the past, including his work on wearable sensors that could change health care for good.
Cheng credits Penn State’s unique interdisciplinary approach to research in aiding him in his work.
“Working with students and researchers with diverse backgrounds in my research group, I have been continuously exposed to different areas that include material, mechanical, electrical, biomedical, physics and chemistry. … The research collaboration with colleagues from different places at Penn State and in Happy Valley in particular also provides me with the opportunity to converse, interact and learn from physiologists, neuroscientists and bioinformaticians,” he said.
Fluid Conservation Systems recently relocated to Happy Valley from Ohio, seeking opportunities to bring its sensor solutions to Pennsylvania. The company produces sensors that monitor water networks, a big need across the state according to company president Beth Powell.
“We relocated here because of the condition of the drinking water network in Pennsylvania,” she explained. Pennsylvania’s public water systems are not only some of the oldest in the country, but they are also prone to damage caused by the annual freeze-thaw cycle.
“There are water districts in Pennsylvania that lose 80% of what they’re pumping out of wells and taking out of the streams. They’re treating all that water with chlorine and then they’re losing 80% of it — and if they lose that near a stream, the drinking water can kill fish. What we’re trying to do is help them lose less water,” she said.
Local innovation, big impact
What kind of impact is Happy Valley’s sensor technology making?
In one of State College-based Sensor Networks’ proudest customer success stories, an aircraft engine manufacturer reached out to the company after multiple instances of catastrophic engine failure on specific aircraft, which had resulted in emergency landings and, in one instance, a fatality.
The engine manufacturer commissioned Sensor Networks’ engineers to design a sensor to detect cracks within the dovetail section of the aircraft’s engine fan blades — and they needed them fast to keep the aircraft operational. The Sensor Networks team created the necessary sensors (enough for 1,200 aircraft), and successfully detected other engine damages that had not yet been detected, preventing potentially countless additional failures.
Fluid Conservation Systems shared this example of the impact of its technology: a client was withdrawing approximately 10 million gallons of water, daily, to serve its 60,000 customers with drinking water — but was losing more than 40% of it in the process. Using the company’s sensors, the client detected 127 hidden leaks along its water system and managed to save 2.6 million gallons of treated water per day that would otherwise be lost, resulting in nearly $500K in annual cost savings.
Cheng’s development of new sensor technologies can change the way that we track vital health data and collect biofluids — and because these sensors are specifically made with soft, stretchable materials designed to mimic the physical properties of skin, they’re no longer burdensome to wear. As Cheng described, “Such a system can continuously capture clinically relevant signals from freely moving individuals for preventative monitoring and early diagnostic confirmation.”
For KCF Technologies, widespread implementation of its sensors and technology by long-time manufacturing clients like Georgia Pacific illustrate the impact of solutions. With 62,000 KCF Technologies sensors across its plants, the paper and building products giant has reduced surprise machinery failures by 50%.
Just like the industries it serves, Happy Valley sensor technology isn’t standing still.
Fluid Conservation Systems, for example, is hopeful about a project in its planning stage with Penn State’s Applied Research Lab and Center for Acoustics and Vibration to further develop its sensor technology; the team has also moved into a new space, ready for future expansion and moving manufacturing into the state.
KCF Technologies is already a leader in the newest machine health technologies, like AI and machine learning, and eager for innovation from young generations joining the workforce.
“In the short term, there is this huge demand for what we call ‘a single pane of glass’ — it’s taking all these ancillary sensors and third-party legacy information and pulling it into one single platform,” said KCF’s Buda. “As you can imagine in manufacturing, there’s a lot of old legacy equipment. Then there’s new equipment, and both have a different level of technology associated with it, and we can service both… The key is bringing all the information together and using machine learning and AI to really catapult how that information is digested.”
He added: “We like to say our work is elevating people through technology. You hear a lot right now about the fear of AI taking jobs. The reality for us is, that’s not the case; what we can do is get better information and focus people on the right work at the right time. That’s what’s going to be key. You’re going to see more of that [need], due to… people retiring and Baby Boomers making up a lot of the workforce where, historically, there’s been a lot of tribal knowledge on how all this stuff works. That just doesn’t exist today, and we help fill that gap.”
He believes that Happy Valley will be a good place for sensor technology to grow. “Our business has never been healthier, and we’re certainly a company that’s super-proud to operate and do business out of the State College area. We love Happy Valley,” Buda said.