Arnold Offner was a Phoenix Contact customer in the late 80's. In 1991, he joined Phoenix Contact as Sales Engineer. He worked in South Africa and Germany, prior to immigrating to the U.S. in 1998. Offner has been involved in the development of electronic interface products, including power supplies and the VARIOFACE line, over the past eight years.
Industrial controls suppliers have developed connection technologies that allow their customers to speed up system integration, reduce installation time, and increase manufacturing efficiencies. Here's an overview.
DESIGN NEWS: What are the major technology trends you are seeing in the international market for automation and control system interconnect products?
Offner: Speed to connect and aesthetics. Watch for pre-manufactured and tested functional modules with wiring and cabling harnesses to dramatically reduce installation time. By incorporating multiple features, design engineers benefit from a reduction in space, and easy plug-and-work exchange of the function, without compromising system integrity. And the look of industrial products now is neater, and attractive-old and ugly are out!
Q: What's driving these trends?
A: Industrial control systems require extensive installation and assembly time before they are able to serve their designed purpose. These resources together with labor skills are in short supply. While the OEM suppliers of these controllers offer interconnection methods that offer time and installation savings, customers of these systems have been reluctant to change their design philosophy to suit the new technologies. Our industry does face an important challenge: Customer acceptance of newly released technology can range from two to four years. Worse still, in some industries, standards created in the 50's and 60's are so entrenched that no one is willing to re-evaluate the present market offerings and evolve.
Q: What technology breakthroughs do you foresee in the next five years?
A: The consolidation of specific customer design requirements into single and multi-channel devices will become more important in retrofits and future system designs as customers see the benefits they offer. Installed cost, installation time, and assembly throughput will offer efficiencies unimaginable today. Such solutions allow customers to better compete in the global market. At Phoenix Contact we continue to develop cabling technologies, such as VARIOFACE, for centralized control systems that offer such enhanced functionality over modular terminal blocks.
Q: How viable are fiber optics on the factory floor today? In five years?
A: Fiber optics is just one medium to transfer information. It lends itself to high noise and interference areas where high voltages, welding, and sparks occur. Over the next five years, the purchase cost per foot, assembly, and component cost will fall to the same levels as copper wire. However, the multi-conductor cables used for centralized and decentralized I/O connections will remain a lower overall installed cost alternative.
Q: What skills are most important for control system engineers to have today?
A: Engineers are getting more involved in the commercial, logistical, sales, and marketing issues relating to a control system-subjects not typically part of the engineering curriculum. So they need to acquaint themselves with these topics. The complexity of today's control systems means they need to be well-rounded businessmen.
Q: How do you meet the needs of customers who are pressured for shorter time-to-market?
A: We have a comprehensive range of products and offer modular off-the-shelf solutions immediately. Once all the design requirements are known, we are able to offer a customized product within three months. The more complex products can take a little longer. And adding to speed, the Internet is the primary location to promote new products, application information, and news.
Q: How does Phoenix Contact successfully design products to meet global and local needs?
A: We have engineering staff in Blomberg, Germany, our global headquarters, and Harrisburg, PA involved in product development. Our US-based engineering supports unique North American standards requirements. Products operating at 24V represent 80% of worldwide sales, so we are not that unique in the U.S. Our design briefs encompass both U.S. and world needs so that product development leads to a global product.
Q: How can design engineers best take advantage of new interface technologies?
A: Take the leap forward and try them out. Recently, we converted a customer from his "standard" method to a dedicated, custom design based on his control circuitry. His standard assembly time was three to five days of wiring and installation, and retrofits meant system shutdown of a day or two. The new design requires an assembly time of two to three hours, with retrofits in less than hour. His throughput has risen so dramatically that he now has access to a previously inaccessible market niche because those customers prefer speed.
Q: What are the greatest challenges facing automation and interface design engineers and their customers?
A: Time, trust, and technology. They need to find time to evaluate the new technologies and trust their instincts to make a break with conventional technology. The large corporate automation companies understand control systems, but not connectivity. Many of these companies already work with us because they do not have the technology and expertise to develop such products on their own.