Wise up to smart factory changes

Driven by the growth in smart factories, where modular machinery is the norm, Harting’s Brian Coyle suggests that the industrial connector is undergoing a fundamental transformation.

The classic industrial connector is in the process of evolving into an Industry 4.0 component. Driven by the growth of the smart factory, dramatic changes are underway, resulting in the modularisation of machines and plants. Connector manufacturers are responding with new features and consequently modular connectors are becoming the backbone of the smart factory.

Most of these changes have been brought about by the increasing demand for modularisation. Unlike installation technology, which is driven by machinery manufacturers, modularisation is a user-initiated change brought about by the need for flexibility. Specifically, plant operators want to configure their plant in the simplest way. Instead of relying on an automation expert or a maintenance engineer, the operator wants a simple ‘plug and produce’ system. This in turn has a fundamental impact on the connector, since it becomes an integral part of a smart infrastructure.

Industrial evolution
Between 1950 and 1980, centralisation was a key driver. The introduction of electric drives in machinery made it necessary to supply equipment with power as well as control. These control and power supply functions were combined in a central switch cabinet, which was later used for the programmable logic controller. Industrial connectors made it possible to separate the switch cabinet and the mechanical areas of the machine, which offered significant benefits including rapid installation and reduced errors compared to hard wiring.

From around 1980 to 2010 factories moved through a process of decentralisation. The introduction of fieldbus systems meant it was no longer necessary to connect all signals directly to the switch cabinet. Sensor data could be collected remotely and actuators could also be switched on remotely. This resulted in a decentralised configuration which was characterised not only by IP67 devices on one side, but also by decentralised, smaller switch cabinets on the other. The Han-Modular connector family, which was invented to transfer data, power and signals to these distributed switch cabinets, does so in a pluggable manner, leading to some key benefits: simple installation and extended machine lifecycles.

Smart transformation
Looking to the future, it’s clear that smart factories will be much more capable of transformation than today’s factories thanks to modularisation. Modular connectivity with standardised interfaces is essential and modules require full data, power and signal capabilities.

Naturally, when a connector is no longer part of the installation, but becomes the standardised infrastructure interface, the demands on that connector are magnified. In a smart factory there is no traditional commissioning process that ends with a standard system configuration. In principle, a smart factory is either continuously commissioned over and over, or reconfigured, even during operation. The new configuration should be produced easily and securely and must be supported by integrated management.

Since the addition and replacement of a module always implies the insertion of a connector, connectors are taking on a new central position. The Han-Modular connector system, for example, is endowed with features for docking and undocking, functionality for high-uptime, active locking, visualisation and communication. These features support the inevitable development of the connector from a passive installation device into a smart infrastructure component.