System Solutions interview with Henning Pickny and Klaus Walter

Saving space, time and money. As cost-efficiency becomes an ever more pressing concern, all market players are faced with increasingly challenging demands and, in turn, impose increasingly tough requirements themselves. Manufacturers confront suppliers with complex application specifications. The trend is towards “system solutions”, a term which is the talk of the industrial world, and a much-lauded concept. Of course, this is also true for machine and plant automation solutions in hazardous environments. However, vendors do differ in what they can actually deliver. Especially when safety technology is concerned, customers should not settle for a compromise. With many years worth of experience, R. STAHL is a renowned specialist for hazardous area systems. In our conversation with Henning Pickny, Project Manager for System Solutions at R. STAHL, and Klaus Walter, Head of the R. STAHL Systems Department, we got a glimpse behind the scenes, and delved into key issues now on many users’ minds.


Mr Pickny, many vendors talk about system solutions. The term seems to be applied to anything and everything. What do you at R. STAHL take to be a system solution?

Mr Pickny: True enough, the term is an “in” word, and even the most basic products and processes are praised as “system solutions”. Sometimes that leaves me wondering. At R. STAHL, we have been offering system solutions for explosion protection for years and years, always tailored to our customers’ special requirements. For these individual implementations, which are precisely adapted to customer’s specifications, we draw on a product portfolio comprising our own as well as third-party products. Capable sales and application engineers support our customers from the first time they get in touch with us, to the engineering of a spot-on solution, and on to commissioning the system on site. And even after that, our services department is there to assist customers at all times. All the same, we do not see ourselves as a mere general contractor, but as an expert partner in the field of explosion protection. We work hand in hand with engineering firms and planning offices who manage large-scale projects. For such projects, we provide hazardous area solutions, e.g. complete machine control systems or systems for automation tasks.


What do these complete automation solutions look like?

Mr Pickny: Our customers need explosion-protected systems and products. These must meet very demanding requirements due to the hazardous environments they are deployed in. Based on customer’s wishes, and drawing on support by our specialised Systems Department, our sales engineers develop the best possible solution for an individual application. In that process, they consider issues like “what performance is required?”, “which requirements result from e.g. climatic conditions?”, or “which international and country-specific standards and regulations do apply?” Engineering is the next stage that follows suit, including the creation of the required documentation. We then build the customised system, deliver it, and set it up. Depending on how complex the application is, we may also provide system operator training.


So your customers can just leave things in your hands?

Mr Walter: Customers want simple solutions that require little effort on their part. They focus on their core competences, and are not inclined to delve into the details of explosion protection. Explosion protection is a delicate, complex issue, and one that is subject to continuous changes. Ultimately, lives may depend on a proper implementation. So it goes without saying that up-to-date know-how of the subject matter is a must. Hence, many R. STAHL experts are members of various national and international bodies, where they make active contributions. This involvement enables us to plan ahead.


How do customers benefit from R. STAHL’s accumulated expertise?

Mr Walter: As a long-established company with more than 80 years of expertise in explosion protection, R. STAHL is versed in all types of protection for electrical equipment in hazardous areas. We are therefore able to exploit all options in designing and implementing the soundest solution for every application, i.e. we do not have to confine ourselves to just one or two types of protection. After all, each of these methods has specific advantages and disadvantages in technical as well as economic terms. Our broad product portfolio enables explosion protection from junction boxes to field bus systems. This high level of vertical integration gives us great flexibility to respond to customer requirements. International certifications and the wide range of approvals and patents we have been granted are testament to our proficiency, and allow for worldwide application of our products and systems. Also, research and development is paramount to us. At any time, our original designs and innovative products give customers the most efficient and up-to-date explosion protection technology.


Can you cite any examples?

Mr Walter: There are loads of examples. R. STAHL is the original inventor of the first explosion-protected remote I/O system, ICS Mux. That was in 1987. With this development, we have cleared the way for modern data communication in automation technology for hazardous applications. Back then, we have used this system to implement one of the biggest remote I/O projects at the time, the Heidrun drilling platform off the coast of central Norway. R. STAHL remote I/O systems are used in three independent sections of the rig. This already took a customised, innovative solution. Adverse environmental conditions, such as wind, swell, spray and salt water, ice, etc. were very tough on all material, including tech equipment. Also, the solution back then had to be compact and light. Our system has been working failure-free ever since start-up, which has recently encouraged that same customer to turn to R. STAHL again for a complete retrofit of the installation. One-to-one replacements of the cabinets were commissioned for an upgrade to our current IS1 system. We went through with that without any major alterations to the platform. There was only a short deactivation of the systems for the old cabinets to be removed. Then the new ones were installed in their place, and all systems were quickly back in operation with no problems at all. This is just one of many examples, though. We develop system solutions for an increasing number of projects, and the diversity of the requirements is increasing as well.


What are the typical requirements you are faced with?

Mr Pickny: In pharmaceutical processes, for example, clean room technology and validation are very important. Special enclosures must be easy to clean, and dirt traps must be avoided by design. Also, the race for natural resources has intensified, i.e. oil and gas, for instance, are exploited in more and more extreme climatic conditions, with regulations also becoming stricter. For us, that means we are called upon to deliver solutions for applications in the desert as well as in the polar zone. Ships and drilling rigs must withstand storm and salt water. Such aggressive atmospheres require e.g. special paints. On offshore platforms and aboard ships, there are also often strong vibrations, and salty spray is in the air. Under these circumstances, technical equipment must be suitably robust. Furthermore, system solutions regularly require special constructions that are adapted to these environmental conditions. Which, by the way, reminds me of a specific interesting project.


Let’s hear!

Mr Pickny: I am thinking of a project for a desert application with daily temperatures of 45°C to 60°C. On top of that, there frequently are sand storms. Electronics must be adequately protected. Because of the high risk of failure of climate control devices, active cooling is out of the question. Yet the customer demands excellent availability. We ran various tests with enclosures, and, in the end, came up with a “box within a box” solution which we are very proud of. In order to optimise availability, we have used fibre optics for the buses and have implemented a redundant optical ring configuration.


Mr Walter, what makes users choose R. STAHL?

Mr Walter: We focus on our core business, explosion protection. At R. STAHL, components and systems are an integrated affair. While mere component manufacturers assign subcontracts for systems because of the complexity of the projects, systems providers underestimate the complexity of continuous product maintenance and of new product development for demanding hazardous environments. In many cases, it is only a short while before such products are delisted again. Of course, such components actually enrich the potential of the systems business. And systems business know-how, in turn, facilitates the development of new components. Another important aspect in our favour is that many customers often have very specific conceptions of what the solutions they need should look like. They seek a reliable partner with expertise in the field, one who is capable of responding flexibly to their wishes, who provides qualified advice throughout the project, and who is totally proficient to implement hazardous area applications. R. STAHL is an ATEX-approved manufacturer, which means that we are authorised to build customised safety systems and to certify them ourselves, i.e. without going through an external testing and accreditation process for each order. That saves our customers’ time and money. We offer even more than flexible solutions for explosion protection, though. For instance, we also handle the SIL rating and the FDA or GAMP validation of our systems. Moreover, maritime application approvals such as DNV or GL certification are a standard service for products from our portfolio. And here in Waldenburg, we have a highly specialised Systems Department with the necessary manufacturing capacity, manpower and competence. Not long ago, this has e.g. prompted a major engineering firm to commission us to provide systems for a fertiliser complex.


Could you tell us a little more about that project?

Mr Walter: Sure. This was a large project concerning more than 120 control cabinets, which we have only recently completed. We covered the project planning and engineering, fitted all of these cabinets with power supplies, ISpac Ex i isolators, and additional components from sub-suppliers, and completed all wiring and testing. It took up more than 200 m² of manufacturing space. One crucial point in this process was that we were flexible enough to adapt the scope and delivery dates of specific parts of the project to customer’s wishes on short notice. Because the lead time was very short to begin with. We had to deliver the first systems within two weeks.


Let’s talk about the future, Mr Pickny. Which trends can you make out in the field of system solutions?

Mr Pickny: As many companies increasingly focus on their core competences, they increasingly tend to lack adequate know-how in the field of explosion protection. In this arena, R. STAHL is becoming a more and more important player as a specialist manufacturer and expert advisor. In various industrial sectors, hazardous areas classified as zone 2 become more prevalent. But these areas also call for careful installations. Impact resistance as well as protection against electrostatic charge must be ensured, and proper labelling and documentation must be provided. Many manufacturers of standard equipment are unable to fulfil requirements like these, and shift the documentation effort, and, of course, the responsibility, to the end user. That is what makes many such users turn to R. STAHL. New innovative technologies such as wireless communication, Ethernet, and LED solutions are making a forceful entry on the market. But these, too, must rise to the challenge posed by explosion protection requirements. Solutions are needed that combine suitable explosion protection, cost-efficiency, and eco-friendliness.


And how does the future look for R. STAHL?

Mr Walter: The systems business has proved to be a stable and strongly growing field. Our manufacturing space dedicated to system solutions keeps growing. By now, approximately 200 people are working in this field in Waldenburg, with an upward trend. Based on this success, we reinforce our efforts to apply our competence and experience internationally as well. We promote system solutions to better serve local markets around the world, and to enable faster compliance with regional requirements.


Mr Pickny and Mr Walter, thank you very much for the interview.