material gains
Getting Up to Speed
Even our wildest predictions for new technologies like the IIoT could be too modest.
“One day there will be a telephone in every major city in the USA.” This outrageous assertion, attributed to Alexander Graham Bell, illustrates the difficulty we face in trying to grasp the full potential of great opportunities. He also suggested – presumably later – that “the day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid onto houses just like water or gas – and friends converse with each other without leaving home.”

And so it is, I’m sure, with the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s just getting started. Of course, great claims have been made, particularly on the number of devices that will become connected. The IPv6 address space permits more connections than we can practically contemplate. But it’s the types of applications and services, the capabilities we will gain by leveraging data from IoT devices, that will change the way we live and work in ways we cannot conceive right now.

Under the general heading of the IoT, the Industrial IoT (IIoT) has taken on a life of its own as commercial organizations realize the potential benefits. It’s a key element of the fourth industrial revolution, the enabler for physical systems to become cyber physical systems.

IIoT applications are typically created to increase productivity: capturing the data that tell us why that batch, made at that time on that day, was faulty, or that tell us in advance when a machine needs attention to simplify maintenance and avoid stoppages.

There are potential benefits to be gained in all industrial activities, such as safety in the workplace. Protection for workers in dangerous areas, for example, can be improved, particularly those who must work alone or unsupervised. Groups of sensors working together, such as proximity sensors, motion sensors, environment sensors, even vital-signs sensors in wearable devices, can tell if workers are in the right place at the right time, if they have been hurt or knocked over by moving machinery, or perhaps received an electric shock.

The IIoT’s evolution will also likely include more efficient implementation, particularly taking advantage of models such as community deployment that is ideal for companies with synergistic models or common business objectives to cooperate, share data easily, and split the costs of access to high-performance computing and analytics. Various service models are available too that let companies use software maintained by a cloud service provider, manage the software themselves as part of a platform agreement, or take advantage of the cloud provider’s infrastructure while maintaining their own proprietary tools. This Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) model gives users greater control over aspects such as data sovereignty and the ways in which workloads are handled, making it extremely popular. According to Gartner, the IaaS market grew over 40% in 2020, a phenomenal performance by any reckoning.

However virtualized our concept of the cloud may become, everything ultimately connects back to data centers that contain real equipment, doing real work. Whether a rented slice of a hyperscale installation, or a privately owned or shared enterprise-class data center, high performance and efficiency are of paramount importance. Power consumption and cooling challenges facing data center operators are well discussed. The battle to minimize energy losses begins as soon as the power enters the building and continues down to the molecular level in the fabric of the servers’ circuit boards. This is the preserve of our industry, of course, and is precisely the challenge for which today’s low-loss materials are being developed.

Every interaction between the computing system’s transceivers has a signal loss component and hence a thermal overhead, however incremental each may be. At today’s giga-transfer-per-second data rates, the effects accumulate quickly, and low-loss substrate materials are becoming increasingly critical to maintain energy efficiency, thermal management, and signal integrity in the relentless pursuit of ultimate performance and throughput. The fastest possible response is always needed, whether these are the latency-sensitive workloads that are being pushed toward increasingly fast-performing edge devices, or the big number-crunching and data-intensive AI applications that remain the preserve of the cloud.

Among the low-loss material technologies available, PTFE is the best we have today and likely to remain so for some time. No alternative I can see comes close right now. The relative lack of a dipole moment, due to PTFE’s molecular structure, prevents signal energy from being absorbed and dissipated as heat. The most advanced ceramic-filled PTFE composites can achieve ultra-low dissipation factor, close to 0.002, combined with a precisely controlled dielectric constant and low CTE. PTFE also has near zero dielectric loss when used as cable insulator.

Although it’s hard to see any technology that could challenge PTFE, Alexander Graham Bell’s is not the only example that warns us against underestimating where our technologies might lead and the benefits they might deliver. We can never say “never” or stop working toward “better.”

Alun Morgan smiling
Alun Morgan
is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (ventec-group.com); alun.morgan@ventec-europe.com.