Are we ready for a cableless future?

Paul Boughton

Did you know that until the 1960s, Boeing aircraft manufacturers used ferrets to carry cables to inaccessible areas? The animals were eventually retired because of a tendency to give up their task ...or fall asleep.

The manufacturing industry has come a long way since it relied on rodents. Now highly sophisticated and increasingly automated production lines in industry are becoming a much more common sight in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0, as it's more commonly referred to.

Surely everything in the smart factory of the future is going to be wireless? Not so. If anything, the higher the level of automation, the more robots and the more wires and cables.

With the introduction of SCARA (Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm), six axis and Cartesian robots, power and control cables need to be flexible and rugged to compensate for continuous, often rapid and multi-axial movements.

Connectors and cables need to withstand the kinetic and heat energy created by the movement of these robots. Materials that provide hi-arc resistance and resistance to vibration are utilised within cabling and connectors to ensure redundancy and reliance. These cables act as the artificial veins of the robotic workforce

As well as robots, a multitude of sensors in the modern factory require a vast amount of cabling that relays back to a CPU (Central Processing Unit). These sensors typically monitor the temperature, pressure or flow rate of a production line.

Cables for these kinds of applications are designed to allow low level signals from the sensor to be accurately transmitted to the measuring device. Jacket materials are typically abrasion, chemical, or high temperature resistant depending on the environment.

Scurrying outside and away from the factory floor, durable cables are also being employed in industries from transportation to facilities and even defence.

The increasing demand for connectivity in networked industrial applications means that rugged cables and harnesses, as well as environmentally sealed connections are required to provide safe and secure data and power transfer in evermore harsh or hostile conditions.

For example, cables for military applications often have to meet stringent weight restrictions - there's no room for excess baggage on a fighter jet designed for high-speeds and cutting-edge responsiveness. Nevertheless power, signal and high-speed data lines still have to be accommodated. These cables also have to offer the very highest level of performance in terms of flexibility, cut-through resistance and abrasion resistance. Consequently, components for military applications must be Mil-spec certified.

Although not as important as life or death - despite how some members of the public react when a train is delayed - external cables for rail applications also need to be highly durable. Especially with Britain's 'diverse' climate.

Despite the use of highly ruggedised signalling cables trackside, there are still some pesky variables, like acts of vandalism, which you can't account for.

The consequences of a broken or damaged cable can mean expensive downtime; it's therefore imperative that cables and connectors for these kinds of applications are as infallible as possible. The future may be portrayed as a wireless haven, but for the foreseeable future, smart robots will be wired.

Darren Halford is with European Automation