AC/DC Transition: a New Challenge for Industry?

Direct current is gradually winning over fans and is being increasingly applied around the world. Today, the transition to AC/DC is also catching industrial attention thanks to its potential to improve energy efficiency in production. However, this shift will require change across the entire industrial landscape, including that of connection techniques. LAPP is at the forefront in the development of components to face this key technological challenge with success.

by Silvia Crespi

Is the future of industry in direct current? This was the topic at the press briefing organized by LAPP on January 28th at Palazzo Giureconsulti in Milan.
At the opening of the session, Roberto Pomari, Managing Director at LAPP, presented the topic by retracing the history of the company which started, back in 1957, as a family run concern in Germany and which produced the first flexible control and command cable, the ÖLFLEX®. Today, LAPP is a group with 8 brands, billing over €1bn around the world.
Four of its companies are Italian based and the country is one of the most important nations in the group.
Marco Vecchio, ANIE Automazione secretary, moderated the event: “The transition to direct current is a new departure that could very well trigger a virtuous circle. The question involves both the manufacturing and energy worlds, building a bridge between two converging sectors”.
The speakers, Gianbattista Gruosso, professor at the electronics, IT and bioengineering departments at Politecnico Milano, Georg Stawowy, Board Member and CTO at LAPP Holding AG and Gaetano Grasso, Head of Product Management and Marketing at LAPP, examined the question from different perspectives.

Direct Current is the facilitator for technological integration
“If we’re talking about Industry 4.0, and this is confirmed by social media, attention is principally focused on IoT, Artificial Intelligence and robotics. It is not technology that is guiding this transformation, but rather the vision of people. Innovation will push these changes, consumers decide whether technology is innovative or not.” With these words, Gianbattista Gruosso began his presentation.
The above mentioned trends are far from what Industry 4.0 really represents, energy is the missing piece of the puzzle and is the key to a sustainable future. Improving energy efficiency in production is a necessary requirement.
Micro grids in continuous current can be a solution, as they allow various technologies to be integrated. In such a context, continuous current can be considered an “integration enabler”. Some countries, Germany being a good example, are already hard at work in this industrial evolution.
Data centers are another hot topic, with information collection now consuming as much energy as production plants.

Will the transition to direct current lead to a paradigm shift?
Georg Stawowy spoke about the long running DC/AC battle since its discovery, the so called “war of currents”. In doing so, Stawowy provided an interesting historical interlude going back to 1882, when Thomas Edison opened the first electrical power station. “Today, 86 years after Edison’s death, direct current power doesn’t seem like such a bad idea; in fact, thanks to present day developments, direct current is very much back on the discussion table…”.
Today, we live in a world that is a mix of DC and AC due to various technical reasons, such as energy loss. Radical developments in transformation and transmission technology are leading to completely new scenarios opening up.
Thanks to new technology in the conversion from AC to DC, the potential improvement in efficiency can reach 30%.
Stawowy supports his analysis with a number of success stories, first and foremost that of the Mercedes ‘Factory 56’ plant in Sindelfingen, a project supported by the governmental DC-INDUSTRIES plan. This is one of the biggest research projects currently underway in Germany.
In this futuristic automotive plant, DC smart grids meet the Industry 4.0 concept. “The transition to DC will inevitably lead to a paradigm shift – confirmed Stawowy. In some countries, companies are already moving towards this transformation. At LAPP, we see great potential in direct current applications. Until now, it has not been possible to completely test the potential negative effects on cables under direct current. LAPP contributes to this evolution by making its vast technical know how available”.

AC/DC transition: a challenge for components too
Gaetano Grasso focuses on the role of components in the transition toward DC, with detailed analysis of the advantages related to the potential energy saving. Certain data require reflection: In Italy, 42% of net electricity consumption is industrial. This is equal to around 135 TWh per year. 70% of this consumption is absorbed by electric motors. The energy reduction through energy savings motors can be around 10% or 10 TWh per year; further savings can come through electronic control of speed, up to 30%. Variable frequency drives require AC to become DC. The AC/DC conversion causes, however, losses as well as interference in the network.
Instead of using one rectifier for each drive, all drives can be directly supplied with DC power across the factory, obtaining a series of advantages: cutting conversion losses and increasing network stability thanks to reduced interferences, reducing the number of components and a more simple and direct integration with renewable energy sources and energy recovery through, for example, the reuse of braking energy and battery accumulation. Today, industrial DC is still used in niche applications, but it could easily become more widespread thanks to its cost savings.
Its implementation will require a vast standardization and specific norms that are currently not available.

A range of applications across the direct current field
There are a variety of challenges that components like cables must face: lifespan, aging, insulation material behavior, the effect of the DC electrical field intensity. LAPP has the answers for many applications. Some examples are: ÖLFLEX® SOLAR cables for photovoltaic panels, LAPP HELIX E-Mobility cables developed by LAPP Systems, one of the fastest growing sectors inside the LAPP group. LAPP was the first manufacturer to introduce specifically developed cables for DC on the market. “Today we can offer cables for fixed and flexible applications in the DC field”, concluded Gaetano Grasso.