Ever since the 1920s, Phoenix Contact has been driven by one thing: the pursuit of “better.” Already in its early years, the company demonstrated with its first series terminal block, the so-called RWE terminal block, that it works closely with its customers on all new developments. Then and today, it has always been about connectivity: from the field, through mapping and on to connectivity to the process control level. And time and time again, Phoenix Contact products have spearheaded new technology trends.
The biggest upheaval in the company’s history probably happened in the early years of Phoenix Contact. Founded in 1923 as “Phönix Elektrizitätsgesellschaft” in the then-pulsating metropolis of Essen in the Ruhr region, in 1943 the company was forced to relocate to Blomberg in Ostwestfalen-Lippe, which still remains a tranquil region to this day. From here, the company’s employees shaped the development of connection technology.
Contact wire terminals for streetcars and trams were the first products. The idea of arranging alignable current terminals on a top hat rail was already proposed in 1928, when the company was still located in Essen. Just like many of the future developments of Phoenix Contact, it was designed to make life easier for users — at the time, it was the Rheinisch-Westfälische Elektrizitätswerk power plant to whose demands the so-called RWE terminal block was tailored.
“Understanding … Tinkering … Making Things Simpler”
True to the early German company slogan “Aus Kupfer plus !deen” (“Made of copper plus ideas”), numerous products were then developed that were tailored to specific customer requirements. From 1949 on, this was under the technical supervision of heavy current engineer Josef Eisert. His three sons — Klaus, Jörg and Gerd — also joined the company in the 1960s and 1970s. For a long period they helped shape its fortunes together with Ursula Lampmann, who had already joined the commercial arm of the company in 1937.
Right up until 2019, one of the recipes for success of Phoenix Contacts always seems to have been the company’s ability to retain corporate responsibility in the same hands for several decades at a time. A good example is current CTO Roland Bent, who never misses an opportunity to get into discussions with key customers of the company. “We always were and still are driven by the desire to make things better,” he explains, adding: “This is why it is so important for us to understand what drives our customers. Then we have to keep tinkering to find solutions that are even easier for the user so that we can offer something that will help them to become more productive and solve their problems better than before.”
Bent has been with the company since 1984, when he joined as a development engineer. At the time, the process industry was one of many customer industries in which the series terminal blocks from Phoenix Contact could be used. In the form of an Ex-proof mining terminal block, the first specific component for the process world was already introduced to the company’s product portfolio in 1956, but it would still take a while before Phoenix Contact would start to devote a significant part of its resources to the needs of the chemical and oil & gas industries.
From Terminal Blocks to Electronics
In 1977, the step into electronics with the first pluggable relay represented a major milestone. The manufacturer of terminal blocks had branched out — the result of plenty of “tinkering.” The challenge: How can a failed relay be replaced as quickly as possible, with any downtime minimized in the process? The solution was to combine a series terminal block with an integrated connection zone and a relay connector. “Termiface” was born — a particularly popular solution among customers from power stations and chemical plants, who rely on the most reliable products in the market.
Just four years later, this was followed by the Moduface series, a narrower and more cost-effective variant for machine building. Things continued in rapid succession, with the relay modules becoming steadily narrower. In 1996 the developers topped everything that had been done before in the sector with the PLC Relay Series, setting new market standards in the process. With this series, they introduced the first pluggable relay terminal with a component width of just 6 mm — subsequently adding the push-in technology already established in the series terminal blocks, which means that no tools are required for the connection of conductors. This detail, which also helped push growth, reminds Bent: “40 percent less force was required to push in the units, but they were still held in place with the same force — that was another major benefit for the user.” The last technology highlight in this sector was the safety switchgear introduced in 2015 with in-house developed, force-guided coupling relays — just like so many of the company’s products, these were unique with a component width of just 6 mm.
The sensitive device and plant electronics of Phoenix Contact's customers deserves reliable surge protection. This was the idea that led to the development of an extensive product range from 1983, which is when the “Trabtech” (Transient Absorption Technology) product family was launched. Powerful surge arresters were used to protect the electronics against overvoltages. “Real” lightning stroke current arresters were introduced in 1985, spark gaps in different designs — including the world's first triggered spark gap — from 1994. This year also marked the launch of Plugtrab UFBK, the first surge protection system for EEx ib circuits, i.e. intrinsically safe I&C signals. A new product family for EEx ia circuits followed in 2000.
One of the main forces driving developments is the desire to miniaturize components in order to create space in control cabinets and switch rooms. In a control cabinet, every millimeter of build space counts. The current I&C surge protection from Phoenix Contact only has a component width of 3.5 mm and is therefore the only solution on the market at this size point. Just as important are new functions — always following the needs of the market, for example in the form of the self-monitoring surge protection for I&C signals that permits preventive maintenance.
In addition to relay technology and surge protection, the company also made a major entrance into industrial electronics at the start of the 1980s. Extensive product ranges for isolation amplifiers (signal conditioners) for power stations, water technology and waste water engineering as well as signal converters for machine building were created. The company shifted its focus into a new direction best embodied by its claim of “Innovation in Interface” technology. Today, this is one of the broadest and most cutting edge product ranges of interface technology solutions on the market. The right interface is available for every application, regardless of whether pluggable with permanent wiring, for diagnostics or with NFC (Near Field Communication) configuration options — and here again with components just 6 mm wide.
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