When it comes to control product development there seems to be no middle ground between large automation vendors and small OEMs with unique product requirements. This seems incongruous against the background of emerging technologies and the market opportunities they are intended to address. In the field of mechatronics it seems even more difficult to sort out.
Industrial control products rarely sell in volumes that attract a great deal of attention from silicon vendors. Let’s face it, a product line of room air conditioners that will sell 300,000 units is a lot more interesting than a new motor controller that will sell 15,000 units. It is rumored that the most successful PLC I/O structure in the history of the PLC business was the Flex I/O product from Rockwell. Equally, it is rumored that the product rarely shipped more than 200,000 units. And that was considered extraordinary by any measure of the controls industry.
So what do we do? The promised ‘mass customization’ that high end automation systems was predicted to supply has never quite gotten there. Yes, you can have your starter made with exactly the options you want, but you can’t have a customized motor control product for anything involving electronic control. Same with the electric motor.
The typical industry response is to explain how difficult it is to modify an existing circuit board or make complex castings for motors. And while these things are true, there are still vast markets that remain under served by the controls industry.
Low volume electronic assembly systems exist that permit manufacture of printed circuit boards in batches of 25 to 50. Board prototype companies are adjusting their offering to provide complete assembled prototypes for evaluation in 24 hours. 3D printing bureaus are providing printed metal parts in days instead of weeks.
The economics of highly customized motor and control solutions are starting to change. It will become the challenge of the next decade to be able to implement new technology more quickly and more often in order to leverage the latest developments. And the pace of innovation will not slow down.
This is because of the interaction of many fields of expertise required to deliver new products. As today’s products require control software, multiple hardware disciplines and all the layers of communications technology, any major breakthrough in any one area may become a driving force in the marketplace. Witness the explosion of new products with embedded EtherCat, for example.
The future belongs to those who focus on a new business model for the controls industry that delivers the newest technology, the most quickly and at the lowest price.
It’s what we all need in order to keep moving forward.