Phoenix Contact launches Axioline, which it calls ‘The world’s fastest I/O system’

Author : Michael Babb

29 November 2009

‘Ethernet meets the terminal block’ is the theme of this innovation, presented to the public for the first time at SPS/IPC/Drives. With bus couplers for Profinet and SERCOS III, and more on the way, its makers say the I/O speed is so fast, all discussion of the significance of what ‘real time’ response means becomes irrelevant.

Axioline will be open to all Ethernet-based communication protocols and optimised for Profinet
Axioline will be open to all Ethernet-based communication protocols and optimised for Profinet

"The year 2009 was one of the most challenging in the more recent history of Phoenix Contact,” was the opening line of Roland Bent, Executive Vice President, Phoenix Contact GmbH & Co. KG, at his company’s press conference at the SPS/IPC/Drives show in Nürnberg.

He said 2010 remains difficult to forecast: “If this tentative positive trend proves true and the second downturn predicted by some economic forecasters does not come to pass, it is quite possible that we will achieve moderate, single-figure growth next year.”

Innovation continues with “Axioline”
The main innovation for 2010 is the real-time I/O system “Axioline,” which was presented to the public for the first time at this year’s SPS/IPC/Drives. It was such a well kept secret, the company did not enter it into any of the “innovation” awards programmes at the show.

Mr. Bent said Axioline was the result of “rethinking classical serial bus I/Os” in light of the increased influence of information technology and telecommunications on automation technology.

“We went back to the fundamental principle behind I/O systems, since, even in the era of Ethernet, users of these systems are usually not concerned with sophisticated high-tech solutions. Instead, they want to be able to conveniently connect devices and transfer the associated signals from A to B. This is a topic that has concerned Phoenix Contact since its earliest beginnings in the 1920s and now forms the basis of our terminal block concept.”

Fast and simple
The terminal block is a universal electrical connector. It has been successful over the years because it addresses three core user needs. It is simple, it is robust and it is fast; in other words, it does not affect the time response of the system in which it is used.

“Put simply, it is invisible to the electrical and mechanical response of the automation system. Therefore, it does not add to the complexity of the system,” said Mr. Bent.

“Our view was that this exact approach was essential to the development of an I/O system of the future, namely a system that conceals all complexity and provides a solution to a core problem for the user. After the paradigm shift in communication technology caused by Ethernet and other similar innovations, the time has come for a new, revolutionary approach to serial I/O systems. The time has come for a system that is as fast and as simple as the terminal block.”

Phoenix Contact has a lot of history in this area, he pointed out, making its first porcelain terminal n 1928, right through to the first modular terminal block system “Clipline Complete” which is still being developed. The company can even claim 25 years of history with fieldbus: the involvement with Interbus began as far back as 1983.

Axioline: the system
As Mr. Bent sees it, his company’s job is to combine all the advantages of terminal block technology with forward-looking IT-based communication technology.

He says if an I/O system is going to function like a terminal block, it must provide three central attributes that distinguish a terminal block—that is, it must be fast, robust and simple.

Roland Bent, Executive Vice President, Phoenix Contact GmbH & Co. KG
Roland Bent, Executive Vice President, Phoenix Contact GmbH & Co. KG

Fast like a terminal block
“The debate around the transfer rates and update times of serial bus systems is as old as the systems themselves,” said Mr. Bent. “For this reason, the term “real-time” cannot be defined absolutely and its meaning always depends on the requirements of the applications in question.”

The idea behind the Axioline concept is to make the system so fast, nobody will question whether it’s real time or not. The real time discussion essentially becomes superfluous.

Mr. Bent says it always functions in real-time regardless of the application. Its time response behaves like direct cabling—almost like parallel cabling, making the difference in transfer rates irrelevant. As the thinking goes, it’s far faster than anything anybody needs, so we really don’t need to discuss that anymore.

Axioline achieves an update time of between 500 nanoseconds and one microsecond for every terminal block depending on the I/O configuration. This corresponds to the physical transfer rate required by an electrical signal to bridge a distance of around 100 metres of cable.

For a system with 256 I/Os, the system update time is less than six microseconds, which is comparable to a distance of 1,000 metres with parallel cabling.

“The deviation between the transfer rate with Axioline and that of parallel cabling is therefore irrelevant,” he says.

“As a result, time is no longer an issue for the user of an Axioline system, because it surpasses all of the limits of today’s existing systems and now achieves fast transfer rates of less than 10 microseconds, a figure that was previously only attained by parallel cabling. We call this real-time I/O.”

Each terminal block, which contains up to 64 I/O, comes with its own 32-conductor passive backplane section. The individual backplane sections butt together to form a continuous piece that fits on a top-hat, or DIN rail.

In the head station—there are currently Profinet and Sercos III versions, with more to be added—is a master controller chip in the form of an FPGA, and in each terminal block there is a slave controller, also an FPGA. All the slave controllers are alike, except for differences for I/O connections. Phoenix Contact will, at some point in the future, make ASICs to replace the FPGAs.

Robust like a terminal block
“The development approach behind Axioline is different from that of electronic devices and modules,” said Mr. Bent. “The emphasis lies on the electromechanical function of the terminal block.

“The electronics required for the transfer technology or its digital or analogue equivalent and functions is an indispensable addition, which should not affect the fundamental properties of the terminal block,” he said.

Highly EMC optimised. the system satisfies the most demanding requirements with regard to its electromagnetic compatibility and radiation. No additional measures, such as shielding, are needed.

Martin Müller shows the stability of Axioline at SPS/IPC/Drives
Martin Müller shows the stability of Axioline at SPS/IPC/Drives

In fact it is so safe it can be used in residential areas and on ship bridges without having to be integrated into another shielded connection box.

Designed to handle a continuous shock of at least 10 g, the shock and vibration resistance is identical to that of a terminal block.

It has a standard operating temperature range of -25°C to +60°C, greater than most electronic devices.

Simple like a ‘Clipline’ terminal block
Mr. Bent likes to think of the Axioline system as ranking alongside the ‘Clipline Complete’ terminal block system his company has produced for many years. It even has the familiar gray colour as the Clipline system. No bright Phoenix green colour used here.

The modules—or terminal blocks as Phoenix Contact people like to call them—can be assembled without tools, with a snap-fit.

The terminal block itself can be exchanged, while the wiring is installed using pluggable terminals so that the user has the option to exchange the entire block or just the I/O.

And it can be labelled using the same materials as in the Clipline Complete system.

The field connection technology used is the familiar push-in technology (PIT). Rigid conductors and conductors with ferrules can be inserted directly. For slim, flexible cables, the terminals are equipped with an appropriate opener that is operated with a screwdriver.

Power is supplied via a power terminal in each block, which makes calculations of load combinations unnecessary.

At a height of 50 millimetres, the Axioline terminal blocks are also mechanically compatible with modular terminal blocks. In addition, they are suitable for standard control cabinets with a flat width of 80 millimetres and can be combined with installation aids such as crest rails. The terminal blocks have a width of 54 millimetres and, for smaller pitch widths, 32 or 18 millimetres. Up to 64 terminal points are currently possible on a width of 54 millimetres. This enables 16 digital inputs and outputs to be connected using four-conductor technology or 64 digital inputs using single-conductor technology.

Axioline’s future
The Axioline system was presented at SPS/IPC/Drives 2009 with an initial product range of terminal blocks and bus couplers.

Mr. Bent hopes people will notice its technological similarity to a Fast Ethernet system, and consider it the “ideal I/O periphery for Ethernet systems.”

Sections of the Axioline backplane bus are visible in this photo
Sections of the Axioline backplane bus are visible in this photo

The first Axioline bus coupler is equipped for Profinet RT and IRT, and Sercos III.

Mr. Bent says additional bus couplers will follow.

There is also the possibility of directly coupling the Axioline backplane bus with a PC-based, high-speed controller, for example, Phoenix’s new Soft SPS.

Mr. Bent even indicated that, In the future, processor platforms within the Axioline system may perform regulation and controller tasks as integrated, decentralised high-speed controllers. “Such a decentralised controlling scheme allows the speed advantages offered by the Axioline system to be fully exploited,” he noted.

And as far as the modules themselves are concerned, the existing Axioline terminal block programme is at an early stage in development as regards its modularity.

Smaller modules, even down to single I/O signal forms will be available shortly. And terminal blocks are becoming increasingly effective and user friendly, which will enable a software configuration of the I/O signal forms.

“New functions, with regard to I/O configuration and signal support, for example, will become available in a variety of forms in the coming months and years,” he said, including various functional modules and safety solutions.

“The Axioline architecture even allows the system to develop in the direction of process engineering applications, such as a hot-swapping function.”

Economic situation for Phoenix Contact

Commenting on the economic situation of his company, Mr. Bent said that after growing sales 10 per cent in the boom year of 2008, to €1.18 billion, the effects of the global economic crisis took its toll in 2009, reducing the group turnover by 21 per cent. That’s not quite as bad as the downturn of 25 per cent across the automation industry, and as a result Phoenix Contact has avoided layoffs and other drastic measures.

The one bright spot was China, where economic stimulus programmess continue to produce growth in that country.

He said there were some “positive indications” in sales during last summer, but he expected to close this year with a loss of around 20 per cent—and therefore with a total turnover of just under €1 billion.

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