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The Solution for the Factory of the Future

There is a new connector on the market. The Single Pair Ethernet (SPE) standard has given birth to a new type of data connector, but it is unlikely to ever become familiar to the public. The USB-C connector that was launched a few years ago has already become a household product, but as SPE is not designed for consumer or domestic applications, it will probably remain less well-known. However, its impact on the world of industrial networking will be huge.

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As the name might suggest, the principal feature of SPE connectors is their use of just one pair of wires. For many years, the structured cabling that is the backbone of computer networking has made extensive use cables with 8 wires arranged in 4 twisted pairs. This basic design has proven hugely adaptable, and even after 2 decades is still used for the latest networks.

The smart factory, driven by the revolution known as Industry 4.0, is characterized by the connectivity between all elements of the factory environment. Despite the high capacity of traditional 4-pair structured cabling, machines on the factory floor mainly use bus-type protocols to share information.

The Disadvantages of Bus Systems

These bus systems bring with them some disadvantages. Firstly, if different levels of the smart factory are not using the same communications protocol, data will need to be translated between one system and the other. This adds unwanted complexity into the network, increasing cost and power requirements.

The SPE protocol seeks to replace the older bus architecture with a unified Ethernet installation using smaller, compact connectors. SPE is not intended to replace the existing ethernet equipment in the field. There is such an enormous amount in existing infrastructure that supports traditional ethernet that this would be costly and time consuming for little benefit. Instead, SPE is designed to take ethernet into places that it was previously unable to reach.

By converting the field level of the smart factory to be an extension of the existing ethernet equipment, it is possible to create a single unified network. Each drive and sensor can be equipped with an SPE connector and given their own unique IP address, creating seamless communication from the machine to the cloud.

Sharing Data from the Floor to the Cloud

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Not only does this simplify the integration of new devices into an existing network, but it also provides important benefits for the smart factory concept. One of the key requirements of Industry 4.0 is that machines can now provide data to the higher levels of the network. This data can be used to monitor the efficiency of the production process, but it will also provide important information about the status of the machines themselves. This data provided by sensors is a key requirement for the use of digital twins.

For this monitoring to be effective, the information must be available in real-time. Machines that are part of an Ethernet network will be able to use the standards created by the IEEE for Time-Sensitive Networking, allowing operators to view the status of the factory on a second-by-second basis.

Installing new devices is made easier by the power capabilities of the SPE connector. For several years, Power over Ethernet (PoE) allows network components to be installed without the need for a separate power supply. Using a variant known as Power over Data Line (PoDL), the SPE connector system can deliver power to devices, removing the need for local power supplies. Using a choice of 12, 24 or 48 Volt supplies, the SPE network can provide up to 50 Watts of power to sensors, displays and indicators. The use of a single twisted pair cable to provide both data and power connections to devices gives the opportunity to save both weight and space.

Applications for the SPE Connector

Robots have been a feature on the factory floor for decades, and their use continues to increase. Robots typically conduct repetitive operations within a manufacturing process that can see many thousands of cycles per day. Using an SPE network, it will be easy to add sensors to robots to enable users to monitor performance in real-time, without the need to separate power supplies.

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Another application for SPE connectors can be found in railways. Modern trains are highly automated and use a wide array of systems, from the monitoring of on-board components to information services for passengers. There is an enormous requirement for cabling within trains that are several hundred meters in length.

Saving weight aboard trains can lead to enormous benefits throughout the life of the vehicle. The effects of reducing the weight of the train can be measured in many ways, from an increase in the useful payload to improved performance. Purely in terms of energy consumption, some train operators have stated that every kilogram of weight reduced aboard a train can save of up to €20,000 over the lifetime of the installation. By using SPE connectors and cables as an alternative to heavier and bulkier solutions, the reduced weight of the installation can provide a financial benefit.

The Connector for the Factory of the Future

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The SPE standard combines new compact connectors, lightweight cabling and plug-and-play functionality to bring Ethernet to the factory floor. It offers the chance to share data from the lowest level of any factory all the way to the top of the cloud. Combined with other new innovations such as the adoption of digital twins, the top to bottom approach to ethernet networks will bring with it the next major step to the factory of the future.

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.
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