Sponsored story: Has the future already arrived?

Steve Ruddell of ABB, pictured, looks at the impact of drive technology

It is some 40 years since ABB developed the world's first variable speed drive (VSD). There has been some incredible technology developments during that time to create the amazingly compact and function-laden drives that we have today. Yet, despite the past decades, the technical advances, the marketing hype and the wider acceptance of VSDs; the take up has, in many ways, been remarkably slow. So why is this? What more needs to be done to change people's thinking? About a decade ago, I read an article that identified several issues holding back the VSD market. One of these was 'asset aversion'. This is the reluctance of industry to own equipment, especially that which is gaining in complexity. Add to that the recent recession and few companies are in the mood for big investments in machinery, preferring smaller, simpler to buy and cheaper to run options. This may go some way to explaining why the take-up of the Carbon Trust's interest-free loans has been somewhat disappointing and why it is estimated that today, fewer than 10% of electric motors have some form of variable speed control. Energy saving and carbon dioxide (CO2) emission reductions are obviously the key drivers for increasing take up. There is not one other piece of industrial equipment that can have such an impact on energy and CO2 as a VSD. The evidence is unequivocal. Just take a look at the references tucked away at www.abb.co.uk/energy if any proof were needed. So what about the future of drives themselves? Where is the technology likely to go? A decade ago it was argued one factor holding back the drives market was the physical size of the products. Today's drive is some 80% smaller in physical size than its predecessor. From the semiconductors to the heatsinks to the chokes, capacitors and enclosures: all have advanced to such a high standard that size is reduced and reliability has improved. While traditional drives are getting smaller, the technology is also being applied to a completely new type of application. These applications are demanding even smaller drives with the result that the shape of drives as we know them are being superseded by drives that need to fit the application. Thanks to developments in semiconductors, drives are finding homes in wind, solar and hybrid vehicles, as well as applications like pizza ovens, spa baths and running machines. In fact these new sectors, especially wind and solar, are growing at a rate that we did not anticipate. The impact on traditional drive applications is that they suffer from sometimes long and unpredictable lead times as demands for semiconductors grow. But I believe this is a short term problem, as new semiconductor manufacturing capacity is already coming online. New materials will continue to be developed, of that there is no doubt. We may even see semiconductor switches that allow the drives to operate at higher temperatures. This would make it possible to further shrink the size of the drives and increase power density. The compact size and high temperature will place special demands on the cooling and all the drives may use heat pipes to transport heat to a place where it can be disposed of or easily recycled. Future VSD wars will be fought over software, I believe, not hardware. We are already seeing this as a key driver within our own products. Software reduces start-up, improves performance, improves reliability and provides remote services throughout a drive's life. Software will enable better usability through better and simpler interfaces with the user. I argue that great software will be what separates winners from losers – just as it is driving the mobile phone market today. In fact, can you imagine if such onboard intelligence resulted in the drives being an integral part of control, maintenance and monitoring system? Self-healing control systems, with control functions spread between a number of drives, so if one drive develops a fault or error, another drive can actually diagnose and fix the fault? Provided the fault is software, the drives in close proximity actually look after each other. At commissioning, the drive automatically detects the characteristics of the load or process and uses this data to set up its own parameters.