ELCON, a company of 66 people and 10Mecu turnover, has specialised in the design of intrinsic safety (IS) signal isolators for 25 years.. Such isolators, or equivalent protection techniques, must be used whenever an electrical signal is to cross an area with a potentially explosive atmosphere. The isolator task is to limit, under any reasonable fault condition, the amount of energy transferred to the hazardous area. When proper wiring and installation techniques are used, this reduces to virtually zero the probability of explosion ignition.
All ELCON isolators are currently "point-to-point" devices, repeating the signals from the hazardous area to a safe location where the central control unit (e.g. a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) or a Distributed Control Systems (DCS)) is located. Technology, was up to now confined to analogue and digital 'off the shelf' components with commercial microprocessors and Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs). ELCON has however planned a new generation of "point-to-bus" isolators which use a serial communication channel to exchange the digitised signal information with the central control unit. The main advantage of the point-to-bus approach is the drastic reduction in connections and the ease in implementing remote data acquisition configurations. Moreover, "digital" isolators are easier to install, commission and maintain.
In a point-to-bus configuration, each isolator must not only include the circuits for an high-accuracy analogue-to digital conversion, but has also to interface with a suitable serial bus to which the digitised information will be routed. An ASIC implementation of these circuits was recognised as very convenient to meet the desired cost and size goals. By means of a custom-designed digital ASIC, it was possible to obtain a product of reduced size, higher flexibility and lower system-level cost. This will result in an increased market share and higher profit margin.
ELCON had no previous experience either about custom ASIC or about any form of programmable logic device. Although a custom ASIC project is intrinsically risky and associated with high NRE costs we decided to go for this innovative technology under the advice of our TTN, because of the advantages offered in size and performance.
The ADAPT (ASIC for Data Acquisition and Protocol Transfer) FUSE experiment started in December 96 with a planned cost 60 KE and was completed in 12 months, with a slight delay with respect to the original schedule; the internal effort was 10.5 mm. The results of the experiment were fully satisfactory, and a set of 20 ASIC prototypes was successfully manufactured and tested.
Breakeven point is reached after only five months of full production.
The return of investment foreseen over the 6 years of the investment (4 year product life) is 58% per annum.
The interaction with the selected subcontractors resulted in a relevant expertise increase in many areas that were completely new for the company. The technology management experience gained with the project is also to be considered as a relevant asset.
ELCON is in the industrial process control (IP) sector with sub-sector (IP1) (Prodcom code 3330)
Interested companies may be found also in sector 29 (machinery) and also 34-35 (transport) since the exploitation of the ASIC technology for realising a bus communication can be of interest both for companies involved in automation and for suppliers of car manufacturers, due to the increasing importance of field bus communication in these areas. ELCON is now working to complete the design of the new family of point-to-bus IS isolators based on the ADAPT ASIC chip. To exploitthe expected "market window", in the best way possible, we aim at launch the product in mid 98 and to start acceptance of orders mid 1999.