Hardware Innovations Are Needed to Realize the Full Potential of Industry 4.0

Significant hardware innovation is an essential element that if ignored could derail future progress in the evolution of manufacturing.

Mnet 110513 Industrial Robot 0
Jim WithamJim Witham

The fourth Industrial Revolution is profoundly changing the face of manufacturing, with new expectations set for increasing facility design flexibility, capital cost savings, and energy efficiency. However, many technology challenges still sit firmly in the path to fully realizing this vision. Most of the attention to date has focused on the development of the software needed for security, AI, and machine communications. Hardware innovation now demands equal attention. For the millions of motors and motor drives, robots and robotics that are needed in increasingly automated industrial spaces, significant hardware innovation is an essential element that if ignored could derail future progress in the evolution of manufacturing.

Small Changes in Millions of Motors Will Deliver Massive Change in Manufacturing

There are more than 300 million motors incorporated into systems including robotic arms, conveyor belts, packaging and fabrication machines, handling and assembly systems, pumps and fans. With their numbers growing every day, they play an invisible, but supremely powerful role, in the industrial marketplace. Yet they pose challenges for the manufacturing industry around their current energy inefficiency and design limitations.

Energy Inefficiency

Today’s industrial motors are energy inefficient.  They consume two-thirds of the energy used in industry, and waste anywhere from 10-30 percent of that in inefficient power conversion. This is not only a costly problem for individual manufacturing facilities, but for the industrial sector overall which accounts for 40-50 percent of the world’s electricity use.

Growing pressure from consumer groups and government agencies about global pollution levels resulting from increased energy production cannot be ignored.

Design Limitations

The current size and performance of motor drives (that harness and control the electricity sent to the motor) does not provide the flexibility that forward-looking manufacturing operations need. New designs are needed for motor drives that can be more easily embedded into other hardware systems; allow for the integration of external functions such as filters; use longer unshielded cables; and provide the increased control bandwidth needed for faster response times and higher precision positioning of multiple motors in robotic systems.

Using GaN Technology in Motor Drives versus Legacy IGBT Solutions

The use of GaN power semiconductors in industrial motor drives offers an opportunity to make significant progress against the energy inefficiency and design barriers that have resulted from the use of legacy IGBT-based solutions. The ability to decrease the size or completely eliminate the heat sink in a power system means that motor drives can be significantly smaller and more easily embedded into other systems. The higher frequencies and faster switching capabilities of GaN also deliver the increased control bandwidth needed for the fast response and highly precise positioning needed in simultaneously controlling multiple motors in robotics.

Energy Efficiency:

  • Increased energy conversion efficiency (98 percent v 93 percent of silicon)
  • 10-30 percent decreased energy use by depending on the application area
  • 2-3X increased power density

Design Changes:

  • 40-60 percent smaller size
  • 10-20 percent lower cost
  • Use of longer, less expensive, unshielded cables
  • Increased motor lifespan

The use of GaN technology in motor drives can create significant change through next generation power system designs that deliver a reduction in energy loss, an increase in power density, a doubling of the life of power electronics, support for longer length cables, and greater integration and precision in robotics.

Robots Need to Evolve to New Levels of Autonomy

In intelligent industrial environments, humans control processes to optimize decision-making and work in concert with increasingly autonomous robots, from mobile AGVs that follow guide paths to robotic arms that perform repetitive and precise tasks on assembly lines.

For mobile robots, the benefits of true autonomy in manufacturing will only be achieved when they can be serviced by wireless charging pads that do not require a human operator to make a physical connection within a complex docking mechanism. Since wireless charging stations are physically low profile, they can be placed strategically around a facility to enable maximum uptime in addition to increased autonomy for robots. Wireless charging is also of significant value in manufacturing environments where exposure to moisture, dust, and debris can affect the performance of contact-based or wired charging systems.

The use of GaN technology in robotic wireless charging provides significant benefits over today’s silicon-based systems. In fact, the limitations of silicon make it virtually useless in high-performing industrial wireless charging applications.

  • Increased system efficiency: 90 percent vs. 80 percent
  • Higher power: 1000W vs. 15W
  • Decreased proximity needed between the charging pad and the robot to deliver the charge: 500mm vs. 30 mm

The Near Future of Industry 4.0 Hardware Innovation

Both hardware and software innovation are needed to continue to deliver on the bold promises of Industry 4.0 in manufacturing. GaN technology is one of the building blocks that will deliver the hardware change that increasingly automated and intelligent manufacturing demands: a new generation of smaller, lower cost, more efficient motor drives, and robots that are increasing responsive, precise, and autonomous.

Jim Witham is CEO of GaN Systems.

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