Industry 4.0 has been defined as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this is the ongoing revolution we are working through wherein smart technology and internet-connected devices are automating traditional manufacturing and industrial practices. Terminology such as that surrounding the internet of things (IoTs), big data, and artificial intelligence (AI), is becoming common parlance in the wake of these advances as intelligent manufacturing matures.

Writing in the journal Materials Today, a team from China and the USA explains how the requisite smart devices often need to be tough enough to survive extreme environments. For instance, harsh and hazardous manufacturing processes could be automated and monitored without direct human intervention given suitable equipment. Petroleum, water, chemical solutions, and other liquid raw materials present a significant challenge in the face of this especially given that many processes in which they are involved operate under high temperatures and pressures and reactive conditions.

The team was well aware of the development of triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs). These devices can convert mechanical motion into electrical signals with high sensitivity and rapid response. The team has now incorporated TENG-based sensors into a block-inserting mechatronic (BIM) panel based on 3D printed components and porous films formed by inductively coupled plasma etching. This approach to fabrication - block inserting assembly - is relatively straightforward and low cost. In addition, the approach lends itself to simple maintenance and repair procedures.

With the addition of a magnetic floater, this panel can act as a reliable mechanical indicator to monitor levels and flow allowing automated flap control and remote wireless monitoring. It works without being in contact with the liquids themselves and so avoids contact with putatively harsh reactants or reaction conditions. The team foresees applications for this kind of equipment in transportation, oil exploitation, sewage treatment, chemical manufacturing, and other areas of industry. [An, J. et al. Mater. Today (2020); DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2020.06.003]

The team suggests that their work "lays the foundations of nanogenerator-based sensors applied in industrial systems, which will strongly promote the progress of industry 4.0, smart cities, and transportation."

The team involved in this work is based at the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems, the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dalian Maritime University, China, Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, USA.