Does the digital world still need connectors? More than ever, says the Lapp Group. The challenges brought about by globalisation, digitalisation, sustainability, and demographic changes don't spare connectors, after all.
Industry 4.0 means that production is becoming more modular and flexible. Automotive manufacturers are already trialling scenarios in which machining stations are mobile and search for the parts to be machined themselves. The question is whether this subsequently makes cables and connectors redundant. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Cables and particularly connectors will be indispensable for a long time to come. If anything, their importance is likely to increase" says Matt Ansell, Product Manager at Lapp Group UK. Even if wireless communication brings about certain shifts, it will nonetheless remain limited to specialist applications on the factory floor. Cables are indispensable for enabling machines to communicate among each other quickly and free of interference – such as for transmitting sensor data in real time – or supplying power to drive systems.
What will change, however, is that these cables will be rarely hard-wired and more frequently connected. After all, machining stations are becoming increasingly modular and occasionally get rearranged depending on the product being manufactured on them. This requires connectors that can be quickly released and plugged in elsewhere again; these can replace the direct-wired variants which are still predominantly used in older facilities. Lapp are certain that this will cause the number of connectors in industrial applications to rise further.
Industry 4.0 is thus not the goal of such measures, but rather a means to a much bigger end. It concerns meeting the greatest challenges that humanity faces, namely globalisation, digitalisation, sustainability, and demographic changes. These topics give rise to a multitude of questions. How will we feed 7.5 billion people, let alone the 9.7 billion who will inhabit the Earth in 2050 according to the UN's forecasts? How will these people work if machines take on more jobs? And how will we shape progress in a way that is sustainable and conserves resources? Industrial companies can't just simply detach themselves from these mega-topics: they are required to contribute solutions in their respective sectors. This brings us back to connection systems. The Lapp Group has realised that it must always take these topics into consideration when developing products. The example of connectors is intended to show where interrelationships exist.
Globalisation: The mechanical engineering sector is becoming more global, with many manufacturers active across all continents. However, it might be misleading to talk about internationalisation in this case. "At the same time, we are observing factors which are increasingly different at a national and local level" says Matt Ansell. Local standards need to be fulfilled in many markets, particularly UL certification in North America. Certain sectors also require special certification, such as wind and solar energy or the rail and food industries. Many products are suitable for a vast range of applications. Leading suppliers such as Lapp therefore always bear the very highest requirements in mind and then derive variants for various markets and sectors from this standard.
It helps that certain connectors have established themselves as standard equipment on a global level. Rectangular connectors have been commonplace for many years and continue to thrive in new applications worldwide. This is where Lapp can bring its talents to bear, with a global presence and the ability to supply over 40,000 standard catalogue products quickly – even to the farthest corners of the Earth. But how does the customer find the configuration that's right for them among the 138 million possible options that Lapp offers for the housings of its EPIC rectangular connectors alone?
Assistance comes in the form of:
Digitalisation: Using the online housing configurator from Lapp, the customer can create a connector housing that matches their individual needs. Of course, digitalisation also means that more data connections are created everywhere in industry. Connectors for transmitting digital data at ever higher rates are therefore increasingly in demand. Various circular connectors are also suitable for this application. Standards among these include the thread sizes M23, M17 and – more often – the compact M12 connector, which garners praise in many different applications.
These connectors are future-proof and thus contribute to
Sustainability: Connectors for industrial applications are not disposable products. They are occasionally intended to last for 30 years or even longer. Yet requirements have become much more stringent over the past few years as far as movement and vibration are concerned, to name just two examples. The number of moving applications is growing, and likewise the speed and acceleration of these applications – such as in drag chains or robots.
However, sustainability means more flexibility, so if a robot is retrofitted with a camera for quality inspection, the connector of this expansion should also be easily realised. Modular rectangular connectors are available for such cases, these can be flexibly equipped for cables that fulfil the widest variety of functions and can accommodate all kinds of connector modules for power, signal, and data. If a new function is added, an additional module can be easily implemented or a different one replaced. This is particularly beneficial to sectors which are industrialising on a large scale, such as the food industry. The challenges in this case are individualisation and
Demographic change: The world's population is growing rapidly, but arable land is limited. If mankind is to be fed, then highly productive, increasingly industrialised food production is the only answer. At the same time, consumers demand food that can be prepared more conveniently and that is packaged in smaller portions, as the trend towards households with fewer occupants persists in highly advanced, industrialised countries. In production, this means that food is industrially processed and packed by machine. This requires a wide range of sensors and drive systems – and therefore also cables and connectors to transmit data and convey power. It is understood that these must withstand frequent cleaning with aggressive detergents, as the requirements for hygiene are also continuing to multiply. For connectors, this means fulfilling ever more stringent requirements in terms of robustness. One consequence is that the increasing technology from other branches of industry is being introduced in the production and processing of food. Wherever possible, end users then opt for industry standards from other sectors. For connectors, however, there is a trend towards custom solutions if standard ones are no longer suitable. In this case, there is a need for the manufacturer to provide intensive consultation and support in engineering.
"The next few years will bring about many changes in industry – I believe we are prepared for these and that we will be able to provide our customers with the support they need" says Matt Ansell optimistically.