Control system manufacturers are currently facing a huge challenge. As the systems they supply become increasingly sophisticated in response to the growing demand for digitalisation, it is increasingly difficult to find efficient and cost-effective ways of handling the huge amount of complex wiring now required.

Digitalisation, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 4.0. All of these depend on data – and lots of it. To provide that data, industrial plants and machines are now equipped with huge numbers of sensors and, in addition, devices like variable speed drives that would once have generated little or no operational data have now become “smart” and turned into prolific data providers.

Supplying power to and collecting data from all those sensors and smart devices requires a lot of interconnections. Indeed, today’s control systems involve a lot more wiring than their predecessors and that wiring is often much more complex, frequently requiring the use of specific types of connectors and, in some cases, specialist cables.

Design engineers often spend many hours working out the best ways to interconnect components, then choosing the right connectors, the right interface modules and the right types of cable to do the job. Even generating the parts list is a time-consuming and error-prone process. And, when the designer has done their job, someone still has to find suppliers and order the items needed, making sure that they can be delivered on time.

Then the real work of wiring can begin, and this is no simple process. If traditional methods of wiring are used, for example, to connect PLC I/O modules to a terminal block in the control panel, this can involve hundreds or even thousands of individual connections. This is a tedious process with innumerable opportunities to make mistakes. Many components now use plug-in connectors, but even these are not without their challenges, as the right tools must be to hand to terminate wiring in the connectors. Care is also needed to make sure all of the connections are sound, especially when crimping or soldering is involved.

Clearly, for control system suppliers, keeping down the cost of wiring and the time it takes up at both the design and manufacturing stages, while simultaneously eliminating errors and maintaining quality, are major challenges. But there is a solution: let someone else do the hard work associated by using online configurators.

An online configurator is a piece of software with which users interact, usually in a standard web browser. The configurator guides them through the specification process for a product, before generating an outcome that can, at the click of a button, be turned into an order for the item, fully customised as necessary. In many cases, the minimum order quantity is one.

The best configurators do even more. For example, tasked with coming up with an I/O interconnection system for a PLC, a good configurator will guide the user toward the use of standardised system cabling, whereby a multicore plug-in cable connects each I/O module to an interface module that can either be mounted within the control panel or in the field. This approach can cut the time needed for field wiring by up to 95%, compared with the use of conventional field wiring. In addition, if it ever becomes necessary to replace or upgrade the PLC with a different model, only the standard plug-in cables will need to be replaced – the field connections to individual sensors and other devices will not need to be touched.

The configurator-based approach is equally useful for simpler applications, such as a signal cable or a mixed power and signal cable with a particular type of connector at each end. Here, the user can choose between a standard cable, if a suitable type is available, a customised cable where certain parameters such as the length can be specified, and a made-to-order cable where almost every aspect of the cable design can be specified. Weidmüller also offers an engineering service that will analyse specific cabling requirements and develop optimised solutions.

For builders of control systems, the configurator provides their designers with a powerful and time-saving tool for choosing and specifying cables, simply by working through a range of options. It provides guidance at every step and also eliminates the risk of most types of design error, as well as ensuring that all of the necessary components are specified. And, when it comes to procurement, a few mouse clicks orders everything from a single supplier.

At the panel manufacturing and installation stages, the right cables fitted with the right connectors are available and ready for immediate use. There is no more fiddling with the termination of multicore cables in awkwardly shaped connectors. The ready-terminated cables simply plug in, saving an enormous amount of time. And, the cables will be right first time and the quality of the connections is guaranteed.

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