Choice of Instruments

Choosing the different types of instruments

The starting point in choosing the most suitable instrument to use for measurement of a particular quantity in a manufacturing plant or other system is the specification of the instrument characteristics required, especially parameters such as the desired measurement accuracy, resolution and sensitivity. It is also essential to know the environmental conditions that the instrument will be subjected to, as certain conditions will immediately eliminate the possibility of using some types of instrument. Provision of this type of information usually requires the expert knowledge of personnel who are intimately acquainted with the operation of the manufacturing plant or system in question. Then, a skilled instrument engineer, having knowledge of all the instruments that are available for measuring the quantity in question, will be able to evaluate the possible list of instruments in terms of their accuracy, cost and suitability for the environmental conditions and thus to choose the most appropriate instrument. As far as possible, measurement systems and instruments should be chosen which are as insensitive as possible to the operating environment, although this requirement is often difficult to meet because of cost and other performance considerations.

Published literature is of considerable help in the choice of a suitable instrument for a particular measurement situation. Many books are available which give valuable assistance in the necessary evaluation by providing lists and data about all the instruments available for measuring a range of physical quantities. However, new techniques and instruments are being developed all the time, and therefore a good instrumentation engineer must keep abreast of the latest developments by reading the appropriate technical journals regularly.

Generally, the better the characteristics, the higher the cost. However, in comparing the cost and relative suitability of different instruments for a particular measurement situation, considerations of durability, maintainability and constancy of performance are also very important because the instrument chosen will often have to be capable of operating for long periods without performance degradation and a requirement for costly maintenance. As a consequence, the initial cost of an instrument often has a low weighting in the evaluation exercise.

Cost is very strongly correlated with the performance of an instrument, as measured by its static characteristics. Increasing the accuracy or resolution of an instrument, for example, can only be done at a penalty of increasing its manufacturing cost. Instrument choice therefore proceeds by specifying the minimum characteristics required by a measurement situation and then searching manufacturers' catalogues to find an instrument whose characteristics match those required. To select an instrument with characteristics superior to those required would only mean paying more than necessary for a level of performance greater than that needed.

As well as purchase cost, other important factors in the assessment exercise are instrument durability and the maintenance requirements. Assuming that one had $200,000 to spend, one would not spend $10,000 on a new motor car whose projected life was 5 years if a car of equivalent specification with a projected life of 10 years was available for 200 000. Likewise, durability is an important consideration in the choice of instruments. The projected life of an instrument often depends on the conditions in which the instrument will have to operate. Maintenance requirements must also be taken into account, as they also have cost implications.

As a general rule, a good assessment criterion is obtained if the total purchase cost and estimated maintenance costs of an instrument over its life are divided by the period of its expected life. The figure obtained is thus a cost per year. However, this rule is modified where instruments are being installed on a process whose life is expected to be limited, perhaps in the manufacture of a particular model of car. Then, the total costs can only be divided by the period of time an instrument is expected to be used, unless an alternative use for the instrument is envisaged at the end of this period.

To summarize, instrument choice is therefore a compromise between performance characteristics, ruggedness and durability, maintenance requirements and purchase cost. To carry out such an evaluation properly, the instrument engineer must have a wide knowledge of the range of instruments available for measuring particular physical quantities, and he/she must also have a deep understanding of how instrument characteristics are affected by particular measurement situations and operating conditions.

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