While ease-of-operation and technological advances are becoming more important factors in the controls industry, the main impetus continues to be pricing.
"The current economic situation is also playing a major factor in this scenario," says Alessandra Novellone of Amisco s.r.l. (Paderno Dugnono, Italy). "The customer wants something which does more and costs less," she adds.
This provides additional challenges for suppliers, according to Ms. Novellone. "On the one hand we must fulfill the requirements of low cost and high quality. However, we must not lose sight of offering, where possible, a product with new and exclusive features to our customer."
The initial cost of controls is the primary consideration for OEMs. In the big picture, however, there are other areas that need to be considered by equipment manufacturers in the controls purchase decision, such as preventable warranty costs, reduced testing costs in manufacturing, and the increased profits associated with a service and installation friendly product. "There's a tendency by service technicians to replace that which they don't understand," says Norman Lavigne, director of Diagnostics at Invensys Climate Controls (Plain City, OH, U.S.).
"As we move from mechanical controls to electrical controls, a lot of electrical controls come back for warranty replacement, when there's no faults found on them, and that is a big source of waste," he adds.
One way OEMs can address waste is to incorporate more technology and diagnostic capabilities into the embedded controls. "The lowest-cost control doesn't typically have the best technology. And the technology can help eliminate other costs in the system and the whole value chain," Mr. Lavigne says.
Flexibility is another important consideration. Invensys Climate Controls offers flexibility in its Eberle Instat 7 controller for the HVAC industry. Instat 7 was designed for 2-pipe or 4-pipe fan coils, heat pumps, ventilation and cooling systems, and split units with or without reversing valves. The controller is said to be easy to use and features a clear LCD display, is menu-guided, and programs easily by four push buttons.
For cooking flexibility, the EGOTROL® from E.G.O. Elektro-Geraetebau GmbH (Oberderdingen, Germany) electronically controls both single- and dual-circuit heating elements, pan detection, and heating times. An additional sensor switch can be used to connect additional heating circuits or keep-warm zones.
Using microprocessors can also add flexibility, without adding much to the price. "Because you have a microprocessor, you can add some features, which just means some lines of code, but not so much hardware, so it doesn't really cost that much," says Peter Hoffeins, product manager at Cherry GmbH (Auerbach, Germany).
He adds that the OEM has to consider what he calls the "VCR effect," however. "If you put too many features on any given device, if it's too complicated to operate, people will not use it. So, you have to make it intelligent, give it more features, but also make it easy for the user to use it without reading a 100-page manual," he says.
Suppliers can also reduce product development cycle times by stocking flexible controls with configurable functionality and flexible inputs, outputs, and specifications, according to Tom Wilkinson, president of Selco Products Company (Orange, CA, U.S.) "Also, larger microprocessors with more features have substantially reduced the code development cycle for custom applications."
And speed-to-market is another important driving force, according to Kurt Narus, product manager for Fast, Inc. (Stratford, CT, U.S.) "Customers tend to have very tight deadlines, and if you can't meet that deadline, you risk losing the project," he says.
"We've incorporated systems like 'Just-in-Time' delivery and Kanban inventory to make production more efficient and henceforth reduce cycle times," he adds. The desire for speed-to-market is not exclusive to OEMs, however. "Because our OEM customers want things quicker and at lower costs, we in turn, demand the same out of our suppliers," he says. "Because the market is so competitive, suppliers are making weekly visits to ensure satisfaction and sniff out new opportunities," he says.
Requirements for improved energy efficiency, without impact on cost is another driving force in the controls industry, according to Gary Hopkins, director of Sales and Design for Sanken Power Systems, Ltd. (Mid Glamorgen, Wales, UK). Sanken specializes in developing customized motor controls for washers and refrigerators, particularly 3-phase systems, which Mr. Hopkins says "achieve the greatest relative energy efficiency." The variable speeds reduce on/off cycling losses, and lower average air and fluid moving power requirements. "The challenge for the industry is to develop a 3-phase system at the same cost as traditional electronic controls," he adds.
Saia-Burgess Inc. (Vandalia, OH, U.S.) has also addressed energy efficiency, as well as the trend toward smaller components with its B16 and B17 Open Frame solenoids. Weighing only 0.44 oz, the compact solenoids are the smallest ever offered by the company. They are designed to provide life of 100,000 cycles with moderate force output. One application of the company's solenoids is the use to actuate the dampers in refrigerators to reduce energy consumption.
Reducing Cycle Times
OEMs are communicating more about what they seek in sensors, and sensors manufacturers are working to meet those needs, which include reducing cycle times.
Flexibility to offer more capabilities is also important, says Ronald Buchanan, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Madison Company (Branford, CT, U.S.). He says that U.S. and European appliance makers in particular are showing increased interest in added features and enhanced performance of sensor components.
"For instance, instead of purchasing separate sensors for liquid level and temperature sensing, our customers are asking for a sensor that will perform both functions in one unit," he says.
Motorola is also working to enhance flexibility and improve cycle times by adding more integration capabilities. "We offer a lot of our sensors with what we call signal conditioning....meaning they are ready to be read into a microcontroller or processor," says Steve Hendry, Motorola marketing manager.
John Beigel, president and CEO of MEDER Inc. (Mashpee, MA, U.S.) says that his company has incorporated onsite tooling labs that allow rapid prototyping and production tooling to occur "which dramatically reduces product development cycle times."
Devin Brock, director of Sales and Marketing for Advanced Thermal Products (St. Marys, PA, U.S.) says that being able to allow the customer to see how the end product will look and operate is very important. "This allows the supplier to design and build the tools right the first time and far faster than the past iterative process," Mr. Brock explains.
He adds that there is another ability that sensors suppliers must provide to OEMs to reduce cycle times. "They must be able to react quickly and be able to manufacture samples and prototypes within days, not weeks," he says. "This means having raw materials on hand and the resources to manufacture them quickly."