We’ve all dreaded the moment, as we’re driving along, when the car starts to shake or rumble for no apparent reason. Or wondered nervously at the shuddering of an aeroplane as it takes off or lands. But what causes such vibrations? An EU-funded project to develop sensor systems that collect vibration information is yielding potentially game-changing results.

Vibration is a daily occurrence in a vast range of machinery, not to mention in buildings and infrastructures as well. The phenomenon causes wear and tear and often leads to equipment or structural failure. But can it be prevented? The WIBRATE partners certainly think so, provided that vibration characteristics are monitored and their underlying causes are understood.

WIBRATE engineers have come up with an innovative new technology to detect and analyse vibrations in a wide range of applications. It consists of a self-powered, wireless vibration control and monitoring platform that can be fitted to trains, civil engineering structures, energy installations such as petrochemical plants, and factory-floor machinery, in a matter of minutes. What’s more, the technology promises to reduce dramatically the cost of maintenance and accidents in many of our day-to-day activities.

WIBRATE is a three-year, EUR 2.85 million FP7 project which developed and tested these detectors. Powered solely by energy harvested from the vibrations themselves, the sensor system is the brainchild of a consortium of European SMEs and research centres, led by the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Less than two years into the project and the WIBRATE consortium has been rewarded with one of its first industrial contracts for the sensor system, from Southeastern Railways in the United Kingdom; this has allowed to further enhance the prototype and convert it into a product.

Cutting down disruption for rail travellers

Southeastern Railways installed the sensors on a number of its trains and found they worked impressively by delivering significant reductions in operational and maintenance costs, as well as improving safety in helping identify premature failures. Now Southeastern says it optimises the use of its assets better, as well as reducing service disruptions for passengers.

The sensor systems monitor wear and tear of bearings, wheels and axles on trains, and their use could also be extended to train tracks, say the project partners. Since they are wireless and self-powered, the sensors can be fitted quickly without the need for complex retrofit wiring or batteries. The smart sensors collect vibration data while a train is in motion. Software algorithms on the smart sensors look for signs of wear and send their detections wirelessly to the central database. The train operators get real-time information on the health status of the trains.

‘The technology has attracted attention from European train operators in a number of countries including Sweden, Italy, Spain, Ireland and Germany,’ said project coordinator Prof Paul Havinga, of the University of Twente. Other partners in WIBRATE are the Swiss university Universita Della Svizzera Italiana, Fiat’s research centre in Italy, IT giant Honeywell (India), mechatronics leader LMS International (Belgium), and the project’s SMEs: Inertia Technology (The Netherlands) and Perpetuum (UK), winner of the Southeastern contract.

Huge monitoring and control market

The technology appears to have a breathtaking range of applications. ‘Imagine for example a factory where machines are equipped with intelligent sensors that detect impending failures by monitoring vibrations,’ explained Prof Havinga. ‘The sensors can be installed with minimum effort and cost. They create an ad-hoc intelligent network that can supervise the machinery on a continuous basis and eliminating the labour-intensive process of periodic monitoring.’

The project partners are moving fast to take their results to the global monitoring and control market, which is a surprisingly big economic concern, representing 750,000 jobs in the EU. By 2020, monitoring and control revenues are forecast to grow to €143 billion , twice the amount mobile phones bring in.

For more info, please see our Memo and the Futuris video dedicated to this project.

Wireless, Self-Powered Vibration Monitoring and Control for Complex Industrial Systems
Project coordinator
Prof.dr. Paul Havinga, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands
Project Acronym
Project website