Looking back and moving forward in automation

Pilz Australia has been a leader in safety automation solutions for the past 21 years. Rob Stevenson, the company’s national sales and marketing manager, talks with PACE about where the company is headed in the future.

Pilz, the German-based automation company, has had a long history of success and innovation in the automation sector. The company was founded in 1948, producing mercury timers for industrial applications and later it became one of the first European companies to produce a programmable logic controller (PLC). The company is still owned and operated by the Pilz family, and now has 42 subsidiaries and 25 sales partners in countries all around the world.

The Australian subsidiary of the company has been in operation for 21 years – only 11 years after the company’s move into safety automation. This move occurred in 1987, when Pilz developed and produced the first emergency stop safety relay. According to Rob Stevenson, Pilz Australia’s national sales and marketing manager, Pilz has been synonymous with safety automation ever since. “When you talk about safety automation, it literally started with that relay from Pilz,” said Stevenson.

From there, the next major milestone was in 1995 with the production of the first safety PLC – the PSS 3000. While the company had been working in the automation sector previously, Pilz saw the opportunity to do something that wasn’t in the marketplace at that time. The safety relay and the safety PLC helped the company build the fundamentals of its continuing success in safety automation products and solutions.

Pilz’s core offering continues to be safety-related products, and much of the company’s wider offerings – including its consulting, engineering and training services – are based around machinery safety solutions. “While to some in the industry we’re known as a safety product company, our services side of the business equates to approximately 25 per cent of our earnings – and this side continues to grow,” Stevenson said. “For us, it’s not about selling something in a box and leaving it at that. It’s about delivering safety solutions. We have a team of safety consultants and sales engineers who have expertise at the highest level, coupled with our long history in safety automation – it’s what differentiates us from any other player in the marketplace.”

The company is now broadening its focus, moving more and more into engineering services and broader automation solutions. Previously, Pilz’s engineering was mostly focused around supporting the project lifecycle by delivering safety concepts, safety designs and machine safety upgrades. But the view for the future is taking the engineering services beyond that and getting into bigger projects.

The team at Pilz Australia is now working on its largest ever engineering project since starting up 21 years ago. Stevenson said that, with Pilz’s developing breadth and depth of focus, it would be wrong to pigeonhole the company as merely a safety-oriented product solutions company. “With our range of engineering services and experienced team, we are now really showcasing what we can do. We have been doing many of these things, quietly acquiring experience and knowledge, for some time,” Stevenson said.

“But now we’re ready to be a bit more boisterous. If a customer has an engineering project that needs to be completed to the highest level of quality, Pilz has the capacity, experience and expertise to do it. Whether it’s project management, design, programming, installation or commissioning, you name it, we can do it.”

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Stevenson indicated that while the core of the business would always remain in safety products and solutions, the future of Pilz would see it expanding and growing into other areas. “There will always be the overriding safety element to the business, but we will be broadening into more and more avenues. Our market is already fairly open: we work with clients in industries ranging from rail, to defence, food and beverage, mining, robotics and amusements – there’s not much we don’t get into. Safety automation, at the end of the day, is about maintaining the integrity of a solution,” he said.

“And this can be applied to more than just man-machine interactions – it can apply to systems monitoring and laboratory monitoring. Even the word ‘automation’ seems like a pigeonhole when it comes to what Pilz does. In many ways, we are beyond that.”

Pilz is now growing further in the direction of integrating Industry 4.0 and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) into its array of strengths, introducing products with online functionality. We are always striving to make our products smarter and better,” said Stevenson. “We have the Pilz cloud coming online and we have already moved into cybersecurity solutions. We have just launched the Security Bridge, an industrial firewall for our controllers and PLCs. It’s a product that has already won an award at the GIT Security Awards for 2018.”

But with all this expansion occurring – including the launch of a robot during National Manufacturing Week later this year – Pilz remains proud of its roots in safety automation solutions. “The safety aspect will always remain our base. There is a lot more to the company than this, but Pilz is very proud that we have maintained this focus,” said Stevenson.

“We have maintained growth, we’ve maintained market share and we’ve maintained innovation. And we at Pilz are very proud about how the business continues to conduct itself.”

After 21 years of operation, among the subsidiaries in the broader global Pilz Group, Pilz Australia is well renowned for its expertise in high- technology products and services. “One of the things in Australia that we are quite proud of is that our team is always at the forefront from a technical solution perspective,” said Stevenson. “There are big multinationals in the US, Asia and Europe that will ask specifically for our people to be involved in projects.

“We’re only a small team, but within the whole Pilz Group we are a highly respected subsidiary that contributes significantly to the overall expanding technical expertise and innovation of the company,” Stevenson said. “After over 20 years of operating at the highest level, we are proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. And we’re excited to take that forward into the future.”