The need for power, signal and data electrical equipment is strong in the process control industry, but local customers require local, customised solutions, along with a mix of off-the-shelf products. Sarah Falson spoke with Weidmüller Australia’s managing director about our unique landscape.
If you were to ask Weidmüller Australia’s managing director, Andrew Finch, about the company’s plans for the next five years, he would give you a detailed outline. In fact, Finch could probably tell you what the German industrial electronics manufacturer foresees for the global power, signal and data industries all the way through 2020 — such is the company’s farsighted global strategy.
Weidmüller Australia is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Weidmüller in Germany. The local business reflects its parent’s mission to be a “leading provider of solutions for electrical connectivity, transmission and conditioning of power, signal and data in industrial environments”, as seen on the Weidmüller corporate website. However, Weidmüller Australia functions quite autonomously from its German counterpart.
According to Finch, Weidmüller Australia is as immersed in the ideology of the Australian market as a company that was born and bred here. The subsidiary has been functioning in Australia for 37 years, and operates a complete power, signal and data sales and services centre — as well as a manufacturing facility — from its base in Huntingwood, Western Sydney.
“We provide the technical support and the marketing machine to support our local distributors. We have application engineers who visit these customers regularly, teaching them about special Weidmüller applications, and training them on the ins and outs of our product portfolio so they can sell our solutions effectively,” he told PACE.
A network of three mutually-exclusive distributors in each of six locations around Australia and New Zealand offer specialist advice about Weidmüller’s power, signal and data products, which includes a standard product range and a whole suite of customer specific solutions which the team will tailor to fit each individual industrial application.
The company’s product portfolio consists of: ‘power’, including industrial electrical connectivity and electronics solutions such as power connections, surge protectors and signal converters; ‘signal’, offering interfaces for transferring an electrical signal to a distributed control system (DCS), including cables, connectors and housings; and ‘data’, which consists of industrial ethernet and bus components including switches, modules and connectors.
All of these products are designed and built specifically for the industrial marketplace, making them perfect for process control applications. According to Finch, this is imperative to Weidmüller Australia’s product strategy, which focuses heavily on industrial connectivity for power, signal & data applications
“Our products are designed to utilised anywhere in a variety of different plant situations, including a food processing plant, a brewery, or a crushing plant,” he said. “These solutions are not susceptible to high frequency interception from big motors and welders, meaning the data won’t be corrupted when faced with typical industrial inhibitors. Each of our products has to be top-quality, and made to meet all the global industrial standards.”
Looking to 2020
As managing director of Weidmüller Australia, Finch is responsible not only for the company’s administration duties, business reviews, budget preparations and financial reports, but also for ensuring that the company is following Weidmüller’s global strategy in terms of its short-term, mid-term and long-term goals.
“We’re already working towards what we’re going to do in 2020 as a company. That’s a global vision for Weidmüller. This is an extremely important aspect to Weidmüller’s success, both globally and in Australia,” he said.
According to Finch, Weidmüller is not a ‘five-minute company’. With trained sales and support forces out there in the marketplace, the company is constantly updating its offerings to reflect changes in the industrial scene.
“Our vision revolves around not only product, but also how we are going to differentiate ourselves. We constantly review how much innovation we put into our company and into our product, to ascertain whether we’re developing the product for today’s marketplace, or further down the track,” he said.
Made in Australia
As a self-funded subsidiary of the Weidmüller empire, Weidmüller Australia has an advantage over its local competitors, according to Finch.
“We are unique in Australia as we have a dual role. We develop and manufacturing products for the Weidmüller group, but we are also a local sales organisation. This is one of our strengths, and gives us a definite advantage when going to market,” he said.
Weidmüller Australia specialises in industrial electronics. The subsidiary produces both off-the-shelf and custom modules to answer a specific industrial need.
“One of the unique offerings of Weidmüller Australia is its capability to provide custom solutions for its customers. We don’t just supply products, but we design products to suit individual specifications,” Finch said.
According to Finch, it is imperative as a local supplier to involve yourself with your customers. This not only allows you to develop products specifically for their needs, but also allows you to respond quickly to changes in the market and react accordingly, Finch said.
“The Australian market functions on a ‘sink or swim’ philosophy. Because of our remoteness, we tend to go ahead and develop unique products and solutions on our own. A lot of this has to do with our climate, which requires much more robust products when compared with European climates,” he said.
“The distances involved in working on a mine site in Australia for example also affect our product development. Solutions have to be super-reliable and have ‘double redundancy’ built into them. If you operate a mine-site 600 kilometres away from your supplier, you have to make sure that the products you choose have both robustness and redundancy built in.”
Finch also says that the nature of the Australian economy, which relies mostly on resources, is a driving force for product development in this region. According to Finch, the resources business, including mining, oil and gas production, and even manufacturing, is particularly demanding on new ideas and efficiencies.
“These businesses require solutions that can be modified down the track, which you won’t be able to do with a system you’ve bought off-the-shelf. These business owners are also extremely busy; they like to be able to sit down with someone who will not only work through their problem with them, but also come up with a complete solution that will work to increase output, lower waste, and drive down costs,” Finch said.
Finch began his career in the electrical industry as an apprentice in 1970 to a large electrical manufacturer. Moving through his apprenticeship and later completing both an engineering degree and a marketing certificate, Finch has now been a part of the Australian industrial marketplace for 39 years.
With Weidmüller Australia providing specialist products and services for the oil and gas, chemicals and petrochemicals, mining and minerals, energy and power management, food and beverage, and transport and infrastructure industries, Finch is well-versed in the changing requirements of the local marketplace.
One of the most pressing requirements in the manufacturing and process industries today is the issue of industrial communication, according to Finch. With the trend toward industrial bus systems including Fieldbus, Profibus and HART, the industrial communication market has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. But Finch says that industrial ethernet — while already used in hundreds of office applications — will continue to grow in process plants and manufacturing facilities around Australia.
“Industrial ethernet is moving in leaps and bounds, because it’s such a common protocol, and very user-friendly. This is in part due to the fact that most workers have already come across ethernet networks in corporate office situations,” he said.
“We are seeing a tendency toward high-speed communication in the plant, but we’re only at the tip of the iceberg. I foresee communication inside the plant not being transported to only one computer, but being transmitted between stations to be accessed at various points around the field.
“Rather than a hierarchy set-up, with information moving from the bottom up, there will be a lot more communication within a plant, in terms of electrical signals and data. This doesn’t mean that the role of the DCS disappears, but that the DCS takes on more of a management role, rather than being an information distributor.”
Miniaturisation is also a trend, according to Finch, with products getting smaller and smaller in order to save on expensive real estate. Speed — in all applications of the theme — is also an important trend, right down to the time it takes to connect a wire to a terminal, Finch says.
“Rather than having a wire in and screw clamp it into the terminal, we’re now seeing products that allow the installer to strip the cable and push it into the connection, which is instantly gas-tight and takes less than half the time than it did before,” he said.
Finch also sees wireless technology as an important addition to the industry, and Weidmüller Australia supplies a number of wireless ethernet communication solutions. But while wireless communication is a blessing to the industry for many applications, it doesn’t have the capacity to replace all cables, especially in applications where the integrity of the signal is key, Finch said.
According to Finch, the global ‘skills shortage’ is still affecting Australian businesses, with various companies outsourcing their engineering talent.
“The electrical industry is an exciting and fast-paced market. Students who enter this vocation find it extremely rewarding not only because it’s a challenging technical area, but also because it moves across so many specialities and different situations. To graduate as a computer engineer is quite different from dealing with a networking situation in an industrial plant, so people in this industry are constantly learning, and building their skills,” he said.
In fact, industrial businesses in the Australian landscape are so varying in their equipment requirements, that Weidmüller Australia — in conjunction with its distributors — regularly holds focus groups for each industry that it supplies to in order to make sure it is answering its customers’ needs.
“Our distributors are extremely important to us, and we regularly hold marketing and planning meetings to support them. We have found that, even though they could be in the same business, a distributor in Queensland will have a different set of needs to one in Victoria, which reflects the varying needs of industrial operations around the country,” said Finch.