Considerations of input and output – I/O – are fundamental to machine design and configuration, and different implementations can have significant impacts on both operational efficiency and in-service maintenance. Virtually every machine from a laptop to a production-line robot has I/O at its heart, and equipment and system suppliers have put a lot of energy
There was a time when virtually every manufactured product was built to withstand anything that could be thrown at it. There were lots of reasons, not least the fact that design knowhow was rather limited, so over-specifying was much the safer option. Of course, improvements in engineering, design, materials science and so on changed all of that, and in recent years the main criterion for manufacturing has become “fitness-for-purpose” – you buy a product that does what you want it to, no more and no less.
On the face of it, this makes eminent sense, but a word of caution is needed. We live in a constantly changing world, and what is right for today might not – in fact, almost certainly will not – be right for tomorrow: ask anyone who bought a smartphone five years ago. It has to be acknowledged that most retail consumers are happy enough to upgrade to something new and (perhaps) more fashionable every year or so, but manufacturing industry is subject to rather different pressures.
In particular, it’s self-evidently true that production equipment needs to be – as far as possible – future-proof, and capable of delivering a good return on the investment for several years into the future. On the other hand, the fitness-for-purpose argument has to underpin the investment planning: no-one wants to buy a Formula 1 car to do the weekly shopping.
It’s a thought that comes to mind when looking at Omron’s new S8VK Series of power supplies. The S8VK-G – launched in January this year – is designed to work at temperatures ranging from -40°C to +70°C, and to withstand severe shock loads and harsh vibration. But why specify a power supply that would work happily on an Arctic trawler or in a blast furnace in Texas, when what you are designing is a packaging line for a pharmaceuticals company in Milan?
It’s an interesting question, the answers to which go some way beyond the bare facts of the specification. For example, a power supply that will work at extremes of temperature will cope easily with fluctuations in input voltage, which is an issue in many countries. This prevents start-up failure (and all the problems that can cause) and the overheating which can result from short circuits or power spikes. Power supplies are also subject to problems caused by dust, humidity, and variations in ambient temperatures. And it’s also worth noting that installations may be prone to local environmental issues such as the vibration caused by heavy traffic or nearby construction work.
Any component that is designed to cope with extremes will also have a long and – as a general rule – reliable working life. This is a vital point to consider with power supplies, because they are fundamentally important to productivity: if the power fails, the whole line goes down. The S8VK Series is designed to operate for a minimum of three years without failure, which means peace-of-mind in anyone’s language.
Of course, any kind of downtime means production loss, even planned downtime for service and repair. A power supply that is well made and robust will need fewer call-outs for emergencies, and much less routine maintenance. Every machine maker knows that the end-user wants to keep the machine working reliably at all times, because that is the only guarantee of productivity and profitability.
So is the idea that designers and panel-makers should over-specify, whatever the machine, whatever the application, just in case there happens to be an as-yet unforeseen problem? Not at all: if anything, just the opposite. Omron now offers three lines of components – Pro, Pro-plus and Lite – for each product range, each with different performance and output characteristics. It means that designers can specify equipment that is precisely right for their application, without wasting money on unnecessary functionality.
That’s not to say that Pro, Pro-plus and Lite are three different quality standards. There are 23 models in the S8VK Series – more may follow, depending on market demands – and the S8VK-G is the Pro line. But even the forthcoming S8VK-C – the Lite line – will work happily at temperatures down to -20°C. In other words, cost-effective doesn’t mean cheap.
And that, perhaps, is the key to this discussion about fitness-for-purpose. There was a time when manufacturers used to talk glibly about planned obsolescence and while that’s a mind-set which has largely disappeared, it should not be replaced by what might be called a Goldilocks syndrome – not too much, not too little, just right. Customers have a right to expect the products they buy to work reliably and as specified. For Omron that means developing components that deliver on their promise – with something to spare. When we say it works, it works.