Connection technology for the “smart factory” of the future

The factory is changing – and with it the need for connectivity. What does this mean for connection technology? Will it become smaller, smarter or simply more flexible? The latest developments from TE Connectivity provide some insight into where the trend is heading.

It is not so long since the typical factory setup involved machines and devices from different manufacturers, each fulfilling a specific task in the production process and each using different data protocols to do so. This required engineers who were familiar with the respective protocol. Because the process was not interoperable, a special communication bridge was needed to communicate with all machines and interpret their commands. In turn, this led to extremely complex processes.

The demand for higher data throughput and greater efficiency not only fueled the development of factory automation, but also triggered the trend toward a general communication language. What was absolutely essential was not only reliable connection technology that was easy to use and ensured higher availability, but also solutions to meet the different requirements of machine manufacturers around the globe. In addition to greater reliability, key requirements today primarily include flexibility, scalability and stronger connectivity. This is because of the increasing worldwide focus throughout the production chain on industrial automation and process control – as encapsulated by the catchphrase Industry 4.0.

While the term “the fourth industrial revolution” is new, the associated development process is simply a logical progression of what has been happening for some 20 years now, namely a shift away from mass production toward one-piece-flow production. This shift is driven especially by the demand for greater flexibility. Some sectors such as the automotive industry have already achieved a higher level of flexibility than others. Ultimately, however, there is general pressure in every area to achieve the highest possible productivity – one reason why connection technology is already widespread in today’s networked factory.
After all, it plays a key role in improving the efficiency of many production processes. And this is precisely what is changing connection technology’s form and function.

As a specialist in connectivity solutions, TE is working on the development of connection technologies that are more flexible and smaller than traditional products. Such technologies include contactless transmission platform ARISO and the mini I/O connector, for example. Moreover, the company is cooperating with the Fraunhofer Institute in order to promote technological developments in the areas of energy and cost savings in the factory.

Contactless transmission of data and energy
The new ARISO contactless transmission platform is a hybrid solution that allows reliable connections to be implemented in situations where this was previously impossible. Unlike connectors, slip rings or pre-assembled cables, this technology allows data and energy to be transmitted without mechanical contact of any kind. Thanks to the lack of contact, there is no mechanical wear and tear and the connection is not endangered by fluids, dust or vibrations. The technology also opens up completely new applications involving transmissions through walls or – in line with Industry 4.0 – the connection of moving parts.

The transmission platform is made up of couplers equipped with an antenna and a power coil in their front sections. Both of these components are connected to a circuit board housed in the rear part of the couplers. Data is transmitted in the 2.4 GHz band. However, as only near-field transmissions occur, there is no interference from other wireless technologies such as WLAN or Bluetooth operating on the same frequency. In other words, data transmission is “contactless” rather than “wireless”. The electrical energy is transmitted using inductive coupling based on the magnetic resonance principle.

Robotics is one example of applications that benefit from contactless connection technology. This is because slip rings, spiral cables or drag chains, which were used previously in this area, wear out relatively quickly owing to the extreme stresses – a lifetime of one year is actually very long for slip rings. In comparison, contactless connection technology is virtually wear-free. It also permits rotational movements of more than 360 degrees, whereas drag chains are normally limited to around 270 degrees. This limitation means that when a robot arm needs to return to its starting position, it has to reverse its entire rotational movement. Using contactless connection technology, the arm can move 90 degrees forward to its starting position, resulting in faster and more efficient production processes.

Industrial compliant alternative to RJ45
The new mini I/O connector range, which includes versions for both circuit boards and field installation, is optimally designed to meet the demands placed on connection technology by the smart factory of the future. This is because it reflects the general trend toward miniaturization. Compared with standard RJ45 solutions, space savings of 75 percent can be achieved, hence allowing efficient utilization of the limited space available. Because the mini I/O connector has two points of contact, it offers a more reliable and stable connection compared with RJ45, which only has one. Micro-interruptions can therefore practically no longer occur and machine downtimes are largely avoided.

To ensure flexible use of the mini I/O connectors, which can withstand 1,500 mating cycles and are suitable for temperatures of -40°C to 85°C, the connectors are available in both SMT and through-hole configurations. The latter have connections that pass through the printed circuit board, while the connections in the SMT versions are on the upper surface. The mini I/O connectors therefore enable two different solutions for circuit board-based products. The field-installable version of the connectors also offers innovative insulation-piercing contacting, which allows the connection time to be reduced significantly compared with solder termination technology. In addition, installation can be performed by means of an easy-to-use tool under almost any environmental conditions.

Efficient use of resources
The latest connection technology is an important prerequisite for efficient production processes. But there are also a number of other aspects that allow profitability to be increased. There are opportunities in practically every factory to save additional energy. This brings the focus to smart metering. Not only does this instrument allow energy consumption to be measured at the overall production level, rather also at machine or even individual unit level. This information including location and time data can be used for swift analysis and forecasting of future energy consumption.

In order to achieve environmental engineering improvements in the area of the “Resource Efficient Factory”, TE experts participated in a project organized by the research group “Resource-efficient mechatronic processing machines” (RMV – Ressourceneffiziente mechatronische Verarbeitungsmaschinen) under the auspices of the Fraunhofer IWU in Augsburg. As Europe’s largest application-focused research institute, Fraunhofer is one of the pioneers in the area of efficient use of resources in production. The RMV project group is doing its part to strengthen the competitiveness of the economy throughout Europe by developing technological innovations and new system solutions. According to a study on energy efficiency in the production industry completed recently by Fraunhofer, primary energy consumption can be reduced by up to 30 percent in the medium term.

TE has been working with the RMV project group since the end of 2013. A team of specialists from a variety of different disciplines participated in discussion sessions and workshops in order to utilize the theoretical approach of the RMV project group and the results of the scientific investigations for its own purposes. The most important objective in this respect is to make sure these results feed into different application scenarios. This will provide the basis for developing innovative connection technologies for saving resources. Cooperation between research and industry demonstrates how theoretical ideas and concepts can be implemented in applications in practice.

Conclusion and outlook
The smart factory of the future will probably not differ significantly from the factory of the present. The changes will manifest themselves more so in the manner and means by which processes are managed and controlled. After all, connection technology will still have to fulfill special specifications. Moreover, this technology will still have to be designed for connection and disconnection in harsh environments by employees who often wear gloves. The electronics in the connectors will no doubt continue to becomesmaller. However, the connectors themselves do not necessarily have to shrink as a result. The freed up space could be used for example to accommodate electronics from the machines, thus allowing the connection technology to become smarter.

By Eric Leijtens
TE Global Product Manager Field Connectivity