These new smart screws send alerts when they’re loose

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Fraunhofer

We hear about innovations with laptops, smartphones, headphones and the like all the time, but rarely about smaller smart tech. Yet that’s what makes things like this new smart self-feeding screw so exciting. Yes, you heard us, a smart screw.

If you’re wondering what could be so interesting about a screw (clever or not), that’s totally fair. But these smart screws, called the Smart Screw Connection, have incredible potential for the future of bridges, wind turbines, high-rise buildings, amusement park rides, scaffolding and more. Why? Because the hardware has built-in sensors that will send alerts the moment they become looser than they were at the time they were installed.

In the past, inspectors had to go around and manually check these types of structures on a regular basis, looking for bolts that were too loose, worn, or needed replacing. Now, if these screws are more widely deployed, inspectors and technicians will only need to visit when an alert is sent.

Regular monitoring of structures such as bridges (in fact, especially bridges) is paramount in keeping people safe as they go about their daily activities. While inspectors will likely still need to make rounds to check structures, having bolts that can monitor themselves will likely save time and even money, as a preventative measure (you know, rather than just waiting for a bridge to collapse). .

The Smart Screw Connection is designed as a flexible and adaptable system for DIN screws of various sizes.  The display shows the status of the corresponding screw graphically
Fraunhofer

The smart screw connection already has a washer attached that features a thin film of piezoresistive material; this creates electrical resistance every time a mechanical force is applied. What that does is the three sensors on the head preload the force at three separate points each time the screw is tightened. From there, when the screw loosens (that is, when that pressure decreases), a warning signal is sent.

The screw head also has a built-in radio module, designed to send wireless signals to a base station. The screws use the MIoTy wireless protocol, a low-power wide area network (LPWAN) protocol used in industrial deployments, to send these signals over long distances, like to those inspectors.

The downside of the smart screw connection is that each screw requires power to stay charged, just like your phones, tablets, headphones, etc. do, so they can stand ready to send signals as needed. The researchers suggest energy harvesting (the thermoelectric effect) as a solution here; this allows the temperature difference between the screw head and its surroundings to generate energy indefinitely.

The technology here is really deep and has immense potential for the future of construction and even consumer goods. Smart screws could be used in vehicles and any number of other projects and structures, and could even trickle down to the consumer level. It can be easy to ignore or overlook less flashy scientific progressions like a smart screw, but the implications of the technology are huge and could likely help save lives. What’s not exciting about that?

Source: Fraunhofer via Gizmodo