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"Social Device" Special Interview

The contents were published from August 2017 to February 2018 on "Nikkei Technology Online",
the engineering information website run by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.,
and reprinted with the author's permission.

※Information of affiliations and titles is true and accurate at the time of publication.

Improving Efficiency is a Corporate Responsibility Facilitated by Engineer Support and Innovative Technology

As society shows growing interest in global environmental issues such as global warming and fossil fuel depletion, improving efficiency to minimize energy and material consumption has become a crucial social issue. Nico Pastewski, Dr.-Ing, Innovation and Technology Management at Festo AG & Co. KG of Germany, a global leader in automation technology and technical education intimately connected with energy consumption in production, discussed the role of the corporation in resolving these problems through innovative technology, and trends in key technologies, with Aly Mashaly, Master of Science, Manager, Power Systems Department, working in advanced power devices at Rohm Semiconductor GmbH.

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Mashaly

 Global environmental issues are a major concern of the public these days, and as a result companies in every field are very interested in technologies that can improve efficiency. As a semiconductor manufacturer, ROHM is no exception.

 ROHM was founded in 1958 as a resistor manufacturer, and has gradually expanded and evolved its business until today semiconductors account for 90% of sales. We provide a wide range of power devices including large-scale integrated (LSI) circuits, metal-oxide semiconductor field effect transistors (MOSFET), and insulated-gate bipolar transistors (IGBT), with the priority on boosting efficiency. Our current push is developing devices using silicon carbide, or SiC. Next-generation SiC semiconductors show considerable promise as a means to significantly improve efficiency in the power electronics field, handling relatively high power levels. ROHM leads the industry in the development of SiC technology and products.

 Myself, I am a power electronics engineer; I am a person in charge of "Power Systems" located in Dusseldorf/ Germany. My main mission is to provide customers with best system-level solutions involving power devices from ROHM. I also serve as an interface between European customers and the development team in Japan. Improving efficiency is a major theme in all my work.

Pastewski

 Festo also emphasizes efficiency in its business. We were established in 1925. As a family-owned company, we think sustainably and act with a sense of responsibility. For more than 60 years, we have been at the forefront of automation, always setting standards. Conserving resources and producing with lower costs is one of our fundamental objectives, which also takes into account the notion of sustainable development.Today we we are deploying our products and services to meet the challenge of smart production for the future in the course of digitalization. To this end, the company is developing new future-oriented concepts founded on the triad of innovative and energy-efficient technologies, intuitive human-machine collaboration, and education and further training.

 We offer an extensive range of pneumatic and electric drive components and automated systems for the factory automation and process automation markets. We are always aware of our corporate responsibility as a member of society, and of the various social problems emerging in recent years: climate change, aging populations and dropping birthrates, natural resource shortages, and the like. We feel that it is our duty to help find solutions to these problems, and have defined six fields of activity to guide our efforts. The first is Energy Efficiency (Fig. 1), along with Technical Education; Material Usage; Environment, Energy and Construction; Health and Safety; and Lifelong Learning.

Fig. 1 Showroom introducing Festo’s energy efficiency initiatives
Fig. 1 Showroom introducing Festo’s energy efficiency initiatives

 We are working to improve energy efficiency outside our company, too, contributing to the energy efficiency of our customers through our products and solutions. Our business operations are worldwide, and so is our customer base… and we are confident that our efforts at improving efficiency are helping the whole world.

Mashaly

 I’m sure that the role of power electronics will grow more and more in the future as we continue to pursue increased efficiency, because electrification is advancing in industrial systems, automobiles, and other fields. At the same time, the weight of electric power within total energy consumption is rising. As it rises, technology providing improvements in electricity usage efficiency will bring a variety of major advantages.

 For example, conventional electric power systems make extensive use of DC/DC conversion to change voltage, or AC/DC conversion. The conversion efficiency of these circuits is in the range between 85% to 95% . It meant there is an average power loss of about 10%. Power converters are found in every aspect of our lives, so that 10% represents an enormous amount of energy loss.

Fig. 2 Wafer for SiC power devices: next-gen semiconductor materials contribute to improved efficiency
Fig. 2 Wafer for SiC power devices: next-gen semiconductor materials contribute to improved efficiency

 Our SiC power devices are being adopted in many applications as a technology that can contribute to solve this problem (Fig. 2). Some examples are the power electronics in solar power generating systems and home-use air conditioners.

 Compared to conventional silicon power devices, power devices made with SiC have much lower power loss internally. It is possible that further research into SiC devices may lead to conversion efficiencies of about 99%... very close to the theoretical maximum. Even better, they generate very little heat, so cooling systems can be made smaller. SiC devices are also effective in realizing smaller, lighter products.

Pastewski

 Even if the energy saved in each individual piece of equipment or system is minimal, the effect on society would be considerable if the technology were adopted widely, as it has been in automobiles and industrial equipment. Equipment today uses enormous numbers of semiconductors, and I think semiconductor devices have a crucial role in boosting efficiency throughout society.

Mashaly

 For EV, ROHM joined “Formula E” racing series which is known as World’s first EV race from 2016. As an official technology partner to Venturi Formula E team, we provide SiC power devices to the Power Train inverter. I think if you watch one you’ll understand the potentials of SiC power devices (Fig. 3). By using SiC we could support the miniaturization, weight reduction and efficiency improvement of the Power Train system.
In the third season of 2016 we equipped the inverters with SiC diodes developed at ROHM. In season four, next year, we will provide full-SiC modules, including MOSFETs, and plan to make the inverters even smaller and lighter by utilizing our SiC technology.

Fig. 3  Venturi Formula E-Car which is sponsored by ROHM  and its inverter which is equipped with SiC power devices
Fig. 3 Venturi Formula E-Car which is sponsored by ROHM and its inverter which is equipped with SiC power devices

 Now Formula E is drawing attention from automotive car makers and suppliers as a field of innovation for EVs. Some people may think this is a special technology because it’s being used in racing cars, but the SiC power device technology in the Formula E racers can be used in commercial electric vehicles (EV) too. ROHM will continue to support improved efficiency in society through our SiC power devices and other electronics technologies.

Pastewski

 As I mentioned earlier, Festo is also committed to improving energy efficiency worldwide, and toward that end we have launched a range of activities covering almost every part of the value chain that makes our business possible. These activities are not limited to Germany: they are under way on the European and even global scales.

 Our internal activity forms the foundation for many of our initiatives. At our production point in Scharnhausen, Germany, for example, we are implementing methods of visualizing the energy efficiency of our production systems. We began with only a few pieces of equipment, but today we can monitor energy efficiency for every machine in the plant. The data is invaluable in determining how to operate the various pieces of equipment for maximum efficiency, and that knowledge is being reflected not only into our own manufacturing efforts, but also shared with product development and built into our products. The results of our in-house efforts are improving energy efficiency in customer production systems, too.

 Many of the items in our product line-up are useful in saving energy in production machinery. We also offer products to help customers visualize their own energy usage. We recently announced products for machine monitoring systems based on the concepts of the Internet of Things (IoT). For example our new intelligent E2M energy efficiency module MSE6-E2M service unit measures, controls and monitors the consumption of compressed air in our customers’ production facilities and makes important production data visible. With the launch of the Festo Motion Terminal in 2017 we are revolutionising pneumatic automation technology in the digital age. For the first time we have implemented pneumatic functions in the form of motion apps using software. This also includes new energy-saving functions, which produce particularly efficient motion sequences. We believe that digitalisation will drive dramatic evolution in the pneumatic drive systems we have been manufacturing for so many years.

Mashaly

 We are doing the same thing at ROHM production facilities. We are an unusual semiconductor manufacturer in that we handle the entire process from raw materials to devices and final products ourselves. We have production facilities in Japan and overseas as well. We have 36 production companies around the world. All of them are installing high-efficiency manufacturing equipment and utilizing modern measures to reduce energy consumption. Much of the knowledge we gain through this process is helping us develop new semiconductor devices, and solutions based on them. Having vertical integrated manufacturing system is helping us to identify any problems by probing issues in our own plants. This method is helping us very effective to solve customer issues too by analyzing and resolving them. Based on our own experience, we are able to explain developing challenges to our customers and offer them solutions before they become severe in their applications. These days semiconductor manufacturers must provide more than merely high-performance semiconductor devices: we have to show them how to overcome challenges and solve issues they are facing, too. And one of the best ways to understand how to solve customer problems is to solve them in our own plants and labs first.

 An effective support stance is also crucial in providing optimal solutions. To provide even more effective support for customers pursuing improved energy efficiency, we established our own Power Lab, a new R&D center, in Dusseldorf, Germany, in September 2017. Provided with the latest measurement instrumentations and simulation environments needed for evaluating power devices on system levels.

Pastewski

 Yes, I agree that technical support is important. We support our customers with a comprehensive range of services regarding the energy-efficient use of compressed air – from generating, preparing and distributing it through to its application in our pneumatic products and systems. To discover potential improvements, we carry out extensive compressed air audits and were the first company worldwide to be certified pursuant to the corresponding ISO 11011 standard. We use this expertise internally to optimise our own plants in terms of power engineering. We thereby make a contribution to the reduction of CO2 at our company and with our customers worldwide. The knowledge of our engineers will be a crucial element in attaining an efficient, sustainable society. I think there will be dramatic changes in many technologies as we transform society, and many engineers will have to master new disciplines. Technical education is one of the activity sectors Festo has positioned as a priority, and we provide positive support for engineers expanding their range of knowledge and skills. We want to help make society more efficient through education as well as through the development of new technologies and products. The enormous rise in the quantity of data and in the complexity of plant networks and company divisions is also requiring new and highly flexible qualification solutions for staff in industrial environments and students in vocational education. The practical training in the use of new technologies is conducted using the cyber-physical learning and research platform “CP Factory” from Festo Didactic. This platform replicates the workstations of a real production facility and makes it possible to learn how to program facilities, set up networks and optimise many other aspects such as energy efficiency and data management.

Mashaly

 In power electronics, which is my primary responsibility, dramatic revolution is already underway. One example is the wide-gap semiconductor technology, including the SiC devices I mentioned earlier. They combine high breakdown voltage with low ON resistance, can be operated at high frequencies, and can withstand relatively high temperatures. Although this technology is relatively new but thanks to ROHM it is gaining a huge amount of attention in the market at the moment. We managed to implement SiC in various products.

 Energy efficiency begins to be improved across the board throughout society. After the revolution phase the evolution phase will start. I think a variety of further challenges in the power electronics market will come to light. As a world leader in next-gen power devices, ROHM will continue to contribute to the early realization of an energy-efficient society by developing solutions for the problems we will face tomorrow.

Thank you for a fascinating discussion.

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