Shift towards intensified networking and miniaturization
With world moving towards digitization, cable and connection technology is changing rapidly. One of the many changes is that a large number of products and even individual components need to and can communicate. In other words, an increasing volume of data has to be transmitted at increasingly fast speeds. Similar on-going application that was adapted in offices years before is now being implemented in factories. Continuous intensification in the performance of microchips is not only driving digitization but also is resulting in a move towards increasingly smaller and more compact products and devices. The smartphones of today have the processing power of a 1990s super computer but has a fraction of the size, energy consumption and price. This factor has had a huge impact on industrial connection technology. Robots and other machines are becoming more compact and are demanding an increasing number of data connections. Special cable designs with the insulation and technical tricks help to save space. As a result, the trend is moving towards frequent use of hybrid cables, which combine the power cable, data cables and even hoses for pneumatics and hydraulics in a single sheath. Where large data volumes are being transmitted, one high-speed Cat.7 Industrial Ethernet cable can replace several slower varieties and one fiberglass cable can replace even more copper-based ones.
Not just the cables, but the connectors too are getting leaner. The modular connector systems combine numerous contacts for different cables in a single housing. The cables to be used in production environment have to withstand millions of bends and torsion as well as high temperature & harsh environments.
Connectors as an alternative to direct wiring
In the era of Industry 4.0, one can imagine producing a TV set today and vacuum cleaner tomorrow. Industry 4.0 is nothing but production processes becoming more modular and flexible. In other words, individual production modules are exchanged or rearranged in next to no time. Here the challenge that a cable and connection technology has to face is that earlier electrical connectors were previously fixed and soldered installations that were subsequently not touched for many years. However, today’s flexibility calls for connectors that can be disconnected and reattached numerable times and still create a reliable contact. Connectors are getting modular to adapt to the flexible production process. For example, in drives, they combine contacts for high currents with Gigabit speed data connections and in some cases even with pneumatic or hydraulics. Hence, when we have to upgrade a machine, it becomes easy to configure and reassembled time and again.
Trend towards system solutions
For production units to function smoothly post adaption of Internet of Things, open invitation process and the other fast-growing technology, the companies need to concentrate on assembly cables. The cables that can be tailored by shortening cables, attaching connectors and creating complete energy chains. Machine manufacturers too are increasingly demanding tailored, ready-to-use assemblies that they can easily incorporate into their machines. Ready-to-use assemblies are also more durable as the supplier guarantees the quality of the entire system, and the user does not have to worry about installation errors such as forgotten end sleeves or damage to the insulation. With assemblies direct from the manufacturer, customers can also benefit from expert know-how and always be sure the technology they use is top notch. The manufacturers of cable and connection technology have to introduce efficient, ideally automated processes and must be capable of quickly delivering highly complex customized one-off solutions to their clients and help them in smooth production. This requires more than just changing priorities in the traditional quality, cost and time framework. Today’s optimum processes bring about improvements in all three dimensions.
DC replacing AC
An increasing number of electronic devices such as, TVs, computers, smartphones, LED lights etc. demand direct current (DC). Earlier there was need for the current to be first rectified from the alternating current (AC) network and then supplied to the devices. These days, photovoltaics generate direct current, which is converted into alternating to be fed into the network. Thus, a question arises whether it still makes sense to use AC. Hence, one can say AC’s days are numbered. When power plants feed alternating current into the grid and all kinds of appliances, from vacuum cleaners to industrial drives, the level of efficiency is around 65%. In other words, around 1/3 of the energy is lost during the conversions from AC to DC and back again. By contrast, an electricity grid systematically configured to direct current would achieve an overall efficiency of 90%.
Of course, bringing about the paradigm shift is not as easy as it may sound. Conventional switches and connectors are not suitable for DC voltage because the polarity of the voltage does not change and there is no arc breakage when switching off – this is hazardous. New connectors and automatic switch-off mechanisms are needed, but these issues can certainly be resolved. There are challenges for cable manufacturers too. These are strong indications that the plastics used for insulation and cable sheaths age differently under the influence of the fields generated by direct current. Research projects are currently exploring these issues.
Coexistence of cable and wireless
In this modern era, wireless is ubiquitous in households. Similarly, wireless technology for data exchange is also gaining its adherents in factories and production sites. Wireless technology is generally cost-effective and offers great flexibility when systems are modified. With this new technology gaining momentum, it does not mean that cables will no longer be used. On the contrary, advancing electrification and networking in factories will require even more cables to guarantee the high transmission rates. With industrial production based on strict cycles, it is very important to reliably transmit the data and information in the millisecond range. It becomes very difficult to achieve the same using wireless solutions. Even if one does use the solution, it would incur a very high cost. The technology can be easily interfered with multiple wireless connections and eliminate one another. It also can be interrupted by changing weather and other unpleasant circumstances. Cables are also less susceptible to malicious disturbances or hacker attacks. As a result, there is little prospect of wireless technology pushing out cable-based systems in the future – in fact they will increasingly complement one another.