Because power supplies are a core component within any electronics application, the power industry often has to develop power solutions years before certain applications reach the market. This is a big challenge and to be able to achieve that and to support customers, power designers not only have to work closely with system and equipment manufacturers, but also perform business trends analysis to define what power solutions will be required in the coming years in the industrial, medical and other industry sectors.
With a lot of uncertainty in the global economy, trade wars, BREXIT, a lack of qualified operators, 99.99% quality requirements, and many others, the transformation of the industrial landscape from conventional to smart is accelerating. In a study published by the Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute, they estimate that within the next five years, smart factories could add as much as $1.5 trillion to the overall industry. This is really significant and if power supplies represent only a portion of that amount, it is not a negligible growth. However, that will require a lot of technical innovation from power supplies manufacturers to meet customers’ expectations.
At a time when some are talking about Industry 5.0 that will focus on the co-operation between man and machine, Industry 4.0 is still at an early stage, though the growing numbers of applications is truly impressive. A lot has been written about Industry 4.0 and intelligent power solutions but since 2015 we have seen other segments such as medical moving forwards to smarter levels of automation and a growing number of robotics requiring power supplies meeting both industrial and medical safety approvals.
Small and medium-size robotic equipment is becoming more commonplace across all industries and if we are used to the impressive robots operating in the car or heavy industries, there is a myriad of smaller robots accomplishing complex tasks, assisting people in improving life (e.g. home healthcare robotics helping disabled people in daily tasks) and even helping surgeons in complex operations, some even being performed by remote control miles away from the surgery theater. The surgical robotic segment alone is expected to grow from $3.9 billion in 2018 to $6.5 billion by 2023, which is only a fraction of the 600,000 robotic units projected in 2023.
Smart power to small and medium robots
Powerbox (PRBX) and its parent company COSEL are developing power solutions for demanding industries, and in both industrial and medical segments we see a strong demand from systems designers for a new generation of power supplies with lots of built-in functionalities, requests for higher flexibility levels in configuration, and more communication interfaces.
The industrial and medical segments are influenced, at one point or another, by the Internet of Things (IoT), and for connected devices from a few watts to multi-kilowatts, communication is becoming very important. We are used to CAN bus or PMBus, but in the smart industry, power supplies will become an active part of the machine-to-machine architecture embedding radio communication and using much faster bus communication that what is currently in practice.
For many, it might seem like science fiction, but already today, power systems used within the car industry can control and test Lithium-ion battery charging during the car assembly process, operating as autonomous equipment transferring charging information data to the next workstation to continue charging and testing without disruption. All power supplies are communicating via radio transmission, making it possible for car manufacturers to move charging equipment to accommodate ever-changing production needs physically.
Another interesting area is the new generation of small and medium-size robots deployed in various industries and the medical sector. The level of integration is impressive, requiring power supplies manufacturers to integrate more features such as IGBT gate drivers with high isolation in addition to normal power channels, without mentioning the flexibility required by designers in terms of output voltage combinations (figure 1 and 2).
Adding challenges to challenges
Because small and medium-size robots are used differently in various industries, robotics equipment manufacturers often require power supplies to comply/certify with industrial standards such as EN62477-1 (OVC III) making it possible to connect the equipment directly to the distribution panel, but also with the new EN62368-1 which was originally created for audio, video and ICT equipment, without forgetting medical standards such as IEC 60601-1 and collateral. Additionally, power designers have to consider a large raft of safety and operational standards, adding yet another level of complexity to an already challenging environment.
The smart industry also means a smart way of organizing factories, with site developers optimizing factory and workshop layouts to increase flexibility and efficiency. Examples include minimizing the main power cabling to equipment and exchanging Ethernet and other data transmission cabling for ruggedized and secure RF communications.
Industrial RF communications networks will develop to facilitate machine-to-machine communications and although power supplies might not need built-in RF transmission capability, they will need a higher level of interaction with their surroundings compared to now, and as it has been in the car industry, it could become a must for certain applications.
RF communication is an interesting research area for power designers to explore, and similarly, how power supplies will follow the machine-to-machine evolution.
By Patrick Le Fèvre, PRBX, Chief Marketing and Communication Officer
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