Powering Industrial Innovation with Next-Gen Connectivity

Gopal Mitra, Industrial Segment Leader at ABB Power Conversion


Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled devices are introducing significant impacts and benefits to the business world

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Figure 1. The skilled manufacturing worker of the future will have IoT expertise in a hybrid environment where employees and robots work together

IoT-enabled devices share vast amounts of data via wired or wireless networks to provide real-time information about the state of “the thing” that is being monitored.

Furthermore, connected devices have been advancing business operations and completely revolutionizing the way information is collected and processed into predictive analytics. Today, thanks to the increasing ubiquity of 5G and forthcoming 5G-powered private wireless networks, IoT-enabled devices and Industry Internet of Things (IIoT) equipment are poised to unlock even more powerful connectivity and communications.

Manufacturing and warehouse facilities now operate as the ground floor for much of today’s industrial innovation, and the fifth generation of wireless technology is paving the way for a new generation of robots and technologies. Take, for example, warehouse robots that are free to wirelessly roam on the floor and take strategic advantage of time between jobs to charge as they go. In 2020 alone, 94% of global manufacturing companies relied on similar Industry 4.0 technologies to successfully navigate pandemic-driven disruption.

While the use of robotics in warehouses and factories is nothing new, the potential to enhance business agility and operational efficiency by exploiting the vast computing and data storage resources of the cloud and moving beyond simple automation to more interconnected and autonomous interaction is as new as it is novel. Such enhanced connectivity will convert traditional manufacturing and warehouse facilities into fully functioning smart factories of the future that maximize the combined capabilities of humans, 5G and robotics.

For such innovation to flourish, however, there is one essential requirement – power. Reliable, compact and efficient power systems are critical to realizing the industrial technology of tomorrow, today. Modern power solutions must deliver the increased reliability and efficiency necessary to maximize uptime, from the building (AC feed) to the box (devices and equipment) to the board (components on a printed circuit board).

Maximizing the Magnetic Power Transfer Process

Unleashing the full potential of autonomous factory robots will require manufacturing facility operators to increase the amount of power that can be wirelessly transmitted during the charging process. By utilizing a wireless power transfer, which allows for the transmission of electrical energy without wires as a physical link, wireless robots can receive the power they need via their proximity to charging sensors without being directly tethered to a corded charging station or dock.

Wireless power transfers decentralize the charging process from otherwise fixed docking stations. In these systems, electric power from the source generates an electromagnetic field that transmits power across space to bring autonomous robots to life, helping to ensure that these applications can continue their work with minimal interruption. As a result, wireless charging stations can be placed strategically throughout any factory – in lifts or by loading areas, for example – increasing availability and productivity.

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Figure 2. Connected devices are advancing business operations and revolutionizing the way information is collected, processed and shared.


Smart Factories Need Smart Power

Additionally, digital power supplies capable of using real-time data around battery power, voltage and current will be needed to manage the specific – and often diverse – charging needs of a variety of autonomous machines.

Similar to how consumer health trackers can measure a person’s heart rate and activity levels and then share results with a physician, power supplies equipped with heat and payload sensors can intuitively monitor the charging process and share mission-critical information with human operators to prevent batteries from being overloaded or overheated. These sensors interact with other sensors within the robot to collect, analyze and share baseline data, providing operators with the knowledge they need to intervene on technical issues before major issues or catastrophic downtime can occur.

At the same time, proximity sensors allow robots to identify obstructions and locate charging stations on the factory floor as needed. To my previous point, since robots equipped with wireless charging capabilities don’t need precise positioning at their charging stations, robots that are temporarily stationary in reasonable proximity to their charging station can automatically recharge through a process known as “opportunity charging.” By enabling a robot to charge for short opportune periods of time throughout the day and in between jobs rather than undertaking a full charge in one docked session, robots can continue their work without delays or downtime.

To further improve efficiency and capacity, incorporating machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) can help make smart industrial robot power even more intelligent. By analyzing collected data and recognizing system patterns that could indicate a potentially failing part, AI and machine learning can work together to generate trustworthy predictions on the status of the power supply and robot machinery, extending beyond maintenance alerts, to warn human operators about unusual conditions.

Innovating Industrial Robots via Miniaturized Power Modules

Electrical engineers are also being called on to create circuits with higher densities, better efficiencies, and high reliability. Take, for instance, mobile phones. Every new model introduces new capabilities while maintaining a handheld size, meaning that innovation and miniaturization are happening at the board level, including the power components within the device.

This same trend will be imperative for the next generation of industrial technologies hoping to innovate and maximize their power capabilities within a compact design. Since the goal is frequently to fit more power into smaller spaces, the miniaturization of power components at the board level helps create the opportunity to develop robots with higher power densities and a longer battery lives.

Additionally, by implementing newer power electronics technologies, such as silicon carbide (SiC), power supply designers and manufacturers have the ability to achieve even greater energy efficiencies.

Historically, silicon has been used as the semiconductor material of choice for powering industrial applications. However, SiC offers a higher energy efficiency level than silicon because of its significantly lower energy loss and reverse charge. This, in turn, leads to more switching power and less energy required in the switch-on and switch-off phase. SiC also has a wider bandwidth than pure silicon, allowing industrial robots to be used even at high operating temperatures.

Reimagining IoT Requires the Innovation of its Power Solutions

The promise of industrial innovations such as wireless charging and autonomous robots provides a glimpse into a future when the integration of technology in human working environments delivers substantial benefits for safety, efficiency, and productivity.

The skilled manufacturing worker of the future will have IoT expertise in a hybrid environment where employees and robots work together. And with the rollout of 5G, we are already seeing the development of next-generation contactless and wireless robotics that bring a new level of efficiency to the factory floor and help eliminate unnecessary downtime.

But fulfilling this power potential requires advancements in the design and engineering of power supplies and systems, which represent the crux of technological innovation. By making industrial power solutions more robust and more capable of supporting continuous communication between autonomous vehicles and human operators on the factory floor, manufacturing industry leaders will have the power to unleash more fluid human-to-thing and thing-to-thing communication than ever before.   

At the end of the day, power is the ultimate enabler. That’s why, no matter the industry, the one common denominator propelling and advancing industrial applications is the reliable, compact, and efficient power supplies and systems needed to make them work – and that will likely always be the case.

It’s up to those at the forefront of modern power to apply the right solutions to make the technology of tomorrow as efficient and reliable as possible, today.