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Continuous innovation fuels journey to radar level leadership

Jan. 31, 2023
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Emerson’s Rosemount radar level technology, Thomas Ortenberg speaks with Len Vermillion about its history and development.

It all started in the 1970s. At the time, crude oil tankers traversing the seven seas—typically with 16 tanks per vessel—needed a way to know how much oil was in the tanks and if there was a risk of spillage, especially during filling in the harbor or travel through storms. A few high-profile accidents—most notable, the tanker SS Torrey Canyon that broke into two pieces off the coast of Cornwall in the United Kingdom, creating a massive, deadly spill—brought the issue to the forefront. It was then that shipping companies sought to speed up the research and technology development to provide accurate level measurement in their tankers.

In 1973, a Norwegian shipowner approached what was then Saab, eventually acquired by Emerson, to determine if the high-tech defense technology developer could figure out a way to measure the level of oil in their tankers without the mechanical methods that were already in use. In short, the shipowner wanted a non-contacting, high-tech, and accurate method.

It was a serendipitous request given that the company was already working with radar technology as an altitude meter for jet fighters and missiles. Engineers at the company, led by Kurt Isaksson, who brought the business savvy, and Olov Edvardsson, who brought the technology expertise, set forth on tailoring their radar technology for use on fluid level measurement in oil tankers and a new era of level measurement innovations was born. In the process, the two men became the founders of what is now Emerson’s radar level measurement business.

Thomas Ortenberg is vice president and general manager of Emerson’s global level business and has worked with the company’s tank radar level technology since it was part of Saab. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the company’s Rosemount radar level technology, Ortenberg talked with Control Editor-in-Chief Len Vermillion about the history and development of radar technology for tank level measurement.

Q. On this 50th anniversary of Emerson’s level measurement business can you reflect on what a storied history it has been and what this milestone means for the company?

A. It’s been a fantastic journey driven by customer needs. As I reflect on the technology’s 50-year history, it’s impressive to see how capabilities have evolved over the last five decades and analyze what were the driving forces behind such evolutions. Customer needs have always been the driving force behind our innovation, and considering that some of our employees have been around for almost the entire journey it’s really a monumental milestone for the company.

Q. How did your founders, Isaksson and Edvardsson, approach the beginning of the radar evolution in level measurement?

A. It was like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, where a commercial mind and a technical mind came together and built a team around them. The first system was designed and built in less than a year, quite a major achievement considering the high requirements on electrical safety in the explosive environment onboard oil tankers. The system was the first ever to have no moving parts, no contact with the product, no maintenance, and was fool-proof. The first trial installation was on the Swedish built tanker Sea Scout in 1973 and followed the tanker’s operation during both its first loading in Kuwait and the first unloading in Milford Haven in Wales. That was 50 years ago and that’s how it all started. It just took a few years until the company became the global market leader for level measurement systems for crude oil carriers and other tanker types.

Q. It was a quick evolution from mechanical sensors to radar. How did the industrial needs change over time?

A. That technology transition went really fast, we’re talking about a time span of only half a dozen years. After that, the interest in this new technology quickly grew even further as all these vessels went into harbor at the end of every trip to load or offload their cargo into terminal tanks in refineries or depot tanks into which they pumped the crude oil. These tanks had mechanical floats, and they had the same kind of issues as the marine tankers. Those floats got stuck and the tanks could overfill, or the reading wasn’t accurate enough, so the terminal operators soon started figuring out that those vessels coming into the harbor had something new—something called radar—and it seemed to work much better.

So, we started developing a radar-based level sensor system for those onshore tanks, and quickly learned that although we measure the same oil products, the customer requirements are very different. Different hazardous location approvals, different custody transfer approvals, different ways of operating the tanks, different materials of construction and so forth. By listening to the customer’s needs and reinventing ourselves, we developed a second system, which was intended for land-based tanks, and that went fast as well. We had the first installation in 1983.

We then started to take the next step in our journey and realized that beyond all these harbor terminal tanks, there are many more tanks when you get into the refineries, into the chemical plants, into the power plants, and into the food and beverage industry. We realized that those customers each have different needs and hence need different solutions. Some of them want to be able to track changes in the tanks quickly, several measurements every second for control purposes, yet others want to be able to detect whether they have foam on the top of the surface inside the tank. There are all kinds of variations and versions here.

Q. How did the radar level measurement technology evolve further on?

A. Toward the end of the 1990s, we had designed yet another generation of radar-based level measurement devices to address the different needs that customers have in these different industry verticals. All along this journey there’s just been a tremendous amount of innovation of which we are quite proud. We have several hundreds of patent families covering radar-based level measurements, and a large number of them resulted from interaction with customers, responding to their needs, and understanding what their pain points really are. I think that’s a hallmark of this organization, the ability to get that real customer need and feed it through to our engineers and getting things done, tested, verified, manufactured, shipped, and ultimately, seeing how it helps customers.

Q. What would you say has been your main competitive differentiation?

A. As the inventor of this technology, we have had to find solutions to many new technical challenges. That would not have been possible without very solid in-house knowledge both in the radar field and in application knowledge.

What has further helped the market adoption is that the cost for the technology has come down the last 5 to 10 years. It is true that radar in the past has been cost prohibitive for some customer segments. From the beginning, this was a spinoff from military technology and that comes with a price, but as we and others have driven the technology development, things have matured and we’ve been able to integrate various circuits and then create smarter solutions, rely more on software, so that’s certainly helping.

Q. What can we look forward to in the years ahead concerning radar technology?

A. Whether it’s in our homes, at work, or where we go shopping in the grocery store, the IoT revolution calls for more sensing technology and the insight that comes with such measurements. Wherever the use-case, there is more demand for awareness than ever before and radar is proven to be a very good technology for many of those sensing needs.

Potentially, in markets like wastewater or food and beverage, you can use radar for many things other than standard applications in tanks. If you think about it, radar is a distance measurement device. Wherever you have a need to measure a distance, you could use radar.

About the Author

Len Vermillion | Editor in Chief

Len Vermillion is editor-in-chief of Control. 

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