Analysis of what might happen in Industry over the next decade, talks mostly of automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. The picture is of ‘smart factories’ operating 24/7 ‘lights out’, with mobile and autonomous robots achieving high productivity, needing very little human intervention.
In Industries that retain operators, ‘cobots’ (see Figure 1) will work alongside them, assisting, watching and learning. IIoT or Industry 4.0 will become all-pervasive with intelligence at the edge – where sensors and actuators touch the industrial process itself. Data gathered in this way will be passed to the cloud to enable minute to minute decisions to be made across global sites, optimising processes and predicting future needs (from raw material shipments to maintenance scheduling). 5G, with data rates reaching 20Gbps, will play a significant role in this expansion.
Figure 1: Cobots working alongside humans - original artwork by Mouser.
The industrial future may look a little soulless with the addition of so many robots and cobots, but the World Economic Forum has predicted that AI alone will generate 58 million new jobs by 2022. At least some of these will be in companies working on power conversion equipment – looking to provide the exponential improvements needed, both in efficiency and power density performance.
Additionally, designers are likely to be pressed for ‘just another 1%’ efficiency improvement when they are already achieving 98% efficiency in a variable frequency drive – pressures to improve efficiency will only continue to grow.
Rising to the efficiency challenge
Luckily, engineers like a challenge. Many look to new semiconductor technologies and power converter topologies to find incremental improvements. The second instalment of this blog series featured the use of wide band-gap (WBG) semiconductors. Their use has opened up a world of possibilities, not only to improve the efficiency of power conversion but also to switch at higher frequencies – with the added benefits of smaller associated components, particularly magnetics.