Control News from Europe March 2008

Read Andrew Bond’s Industrial Automation Insider, a monthly newsletter covering the important industrial automation news and issues as seen from the U.K.

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“Standardization of layers 1 and 2 of the Ethernet stack in IEEE 802.3 makes Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) physical layer products widely available and familiar to potential OEMs and end users but, as always seems to be the case in the industrial automation segment, each major supplier wants to support its own higher-level protocols,” said ARC vice president and the report’s principal author, Chantal Polsonetti. “For the customer, this translates to common physical layer components throughout the enterprise, but multiple competing protocols at the automation layer.”

Even when it is confined to the lower layers, manufacturers are finding the idea of a single network technology which enables vertical integration throughout the enterprise over the same network an increasingly compelling value proposition. The promise is one of ease-of-network integration and configuration/reconfiguration, as well potentially of less expensive, flatter architectures and enterprise-wide data exchange for everything from process optimization to asset management. Moreover, a common skill base for configuration, installation, maintenance and troubleshooting reduces the need for specialized personnel and makes both training and support more readily accessible. Couple these advantages with worldwide availability and support by both IT and automation vendors, and its attractiveness compared with dedicated industrial networks becomes increasingly difficult to deny.

MTL back to the knitting as Cooper deal waits approval

Any lingering doubts over the outcome of the Cooper Industries offer for MTL (See January INSIDER) were largely dispelled in mid-January when Cooper announced that it had received acceptances for more than 90% of the issued share capital and that the offer would therefore become unconditional. With the deal still subject to regulatory approval, however, few if any MTL representatives were in a position to comment either on the deal itself or on its likely subsequent ramifications once Cooper gets its hands on the levers. But that did not prevent it staging a major launch last month which, as luck would have it, was positioned right at the core of MTL’s original business and of what had attracted Cooper in the first place, its intrinsic safety expertise.

As relatively recently arrived marketing director Dermot Coady explained, MTL now has more products outside its hazardous area business than in it. “MTL is now not just a hazardous area business,” he said and that was underlined by last year’s acquisitions including Elpro, which took it into wireless I/O and gateways, and RTK Instruments which, as well as giving it an alarm capability, provided an entrée to the power industry where RTK finds some 80% of its business.

According to Coady these deals together with the acquisition of Ocean Technical Systems, were consistent with CEO Graeme Philp’s strategic ambition of becoming the key supplier of building blocks to the world’s major process automation vendors. An important plank in that strategy has been the development of MOST (MTL Open System Technologies) in the U.S. to offer a third-party control platform and, while no major DCS vendor has yet taken the final step of abandoning its proprietary controller for a third party solution, Coady told INSIDER that discussions are well advanced with a particular DCS supplier.

Not dying

Despite all these developments, however, the introduction of a new IS product line is still a major event for MTL. While intrinsic safety no longer dominates MTL in the way that it did in the ’80s and ’90s, it still accounts for some 40% of the group’s total business. Moreover, although its Foundation fieldbus device business grew by 60% last year, it still shipped 20% more traditional point-to-point IS isolation products than in the previous year, leading Coady to comment that “this is not a dying business.”

MTL last introduced a range of galvanic isolation products 10 years ago when it launched its 4000 series of back plane mounting isolators aimed principally at the project-oriented market among DCS vendors and OEMs. These were complemented by the entirely separate ‘application focussed’ 5000 series of DIN-rail mounting devices. The principal achievement of the new introduction is that, while they remain compatible with their respective predecessors, the new back plane mounting 4500 series and DIN-rail mounting 5500 series are now configured around a common kernel. Using this ‘One-Core’ approach, both product families share the same mechanical features and electrical attributes and are built around a common circuit board which fits in either housing and can be customized to provide a range of functions. Other advantages of the design are a significant reduction in power consumption and industry-leading channel packing densities.

New transformer

What makes the new design with its high degree of commonality and crucially manufacturability possible is a new planar transformer, assembly of whose primary windings, formed by tracks on the motherboard, secondary windings on a separate daughter board and transformer core can be entirely automated. Indeed the entire manufacturing process from start to finish, including final test, has been automated, enabling MTL to manufacture the modules in the U.K. while keeping its costs competitive with other manufacturers who have been forced to outsource to the Far East in search of lower labor costs because of the manual content in their production processes.

Barring unforeseen accidents, February should have seen Cooper’s acquisition of MTL completed. All the indications are that, at least initially, MTL will continue to operate as an autonomous entity, albeit as part of Cooper Crouse-Hinds. That would certainly seem to be the wisest option. According to Coady, MTL is due to make a number of major announcements over the coming months, indicating that its thirst for innovation is as strong as ever both in traditional areas such as intrinsic safety and in such new areas as cyber security. The very last thing a new owner needs to do is to stifle that innovative flair.

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