Farm machines will lead the drive to digitise

In the next generation of farm machines where large data volumes are being transmitted, one high-speed Cat.7 Industrial Ethernet cable can replace several slower varieties and one fibreglass cable can replace even more copper-based ones

Emerging trends in digital and automation technology offer a bright future for farm machines, says the Australian general manager of the global technology company Lapp.

Simon Pullinger points to five trends – intensified networking and miniaturisation, use of connectors instead of direct wiring, a trend towards system solutions, DC power replacing AC and co-existence of cables and wireless.

“Continuous increases in the performance of microchips is not only driving digitalisation but also – in conjunction with efforts to improve resource efficiency – is resulting in a move towards increasingly smaller and more compact products and devices,” Mr Pullinger said.

“A smartphone now has the processing power of a 1990s super computer but has a fraction of the size, energy consumption and price. This is having a big impact on industrial connection technology.

“Robots and other machines are becoming more compact and demanding an increasing number of data connections.”

He says special cable designs and technical tricks, with the insulation for example, help to save space.

“As a result, we are seeing increasingly frequent use of hybrid cables, that combine the power cable, data cables and even hoses for pneumatics and hydraulics in a single sheath,” Mr Pullinger said.

He points out that while electrical connections were previously fixed, with soldered installations, today’s flexibility calls for connectors that can be disconnected thousands of times and still create a reliable contact.

“Connectors are also becoming more modular,” Mr Pullinger said. “They combine contacts for high currents – for drives for example – with gigabit speed data connections and in some cases even with pneumatics or hydraulics.

“Everything is easy to configure and can be reassembled again and again, for example if a machine is upgraded.”

With tasks facing machine manufacturers growing remorselessly, Mr Pullinger says, it is even more important that they concentrate on core competencies, and these do not normally include assembling cables – shortening cables, attaching connectors and creating complete energy chains.

Robots will replace many current farm machines and are predicted to become much more compact as designers replace automotive engineers in the next round of product development

“As a result, machine manufacturers are increasingly demanding tailored ready-to-use assemblies that they can easily incorporate into their machines,” he said.

Mr Pullinger said manufacturers needed to introduce efficient, ideally automated processes and must be capable of quickly delivering highly complex customised one-off solutions, and this required more than just changing priorities in the traditional quality, cost and time framework.

He also notes that AC power is under pressure with the emergence of photovoltaics generating direct current, and the substantial energy losses involved in converting it to AC.

“Of course, bringing about the paradigm shift is not as easy as it may sound,” Mr Pullinger said. “Conventional switches and connectors are not suitable for DC voltage because the polarity of the voltage does not change and there is no arc breakage when switching off – this is hazardous.

“New connectors and automatic switch-off mechanisms are needed, but these issues can certainly be resolved.”

And finally, even though wi-fi is gaining adherents due to its cost-effectiveness and flexibility, Mr Pullinger says advancing electrification and networking will, if anything, require even more cables to guarantee the high transmission rates.

“Multiple wireless connections can easily interfere with and eliminate one another and can also be interrupted by moving objects such as forklift trucks,” he said. “Cables are also less susceptible to malicious disturbances or hacker attacks.”