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SWARCO: All that glitters is not crystal … or is it?

One exceptionally rainy afternoon when the weather was seriously doing its best to break the record for the number of consecutive hours of rain in the Netherlands, we were driving from Wateringen to Lijnden. Sales Engineer Danny Hogeveen and I are going for a guided tour at one of our client’s locations, to see how our products function in their networks.

Matrixbord A4

On the way there, the overhead matrix displays are showing lower speeds than normally allowed; but because everyone is driving a little more slowly, the traffic is flowing more easily. In fact, the rain is as well: it’s now pouring down in veritable sheets. Cars become shadows and the highway merges into a single grey entity. Apart from the matrix displays, that is: the crystal-clear white and red LED lights pierce through this dismal weather. It provides a little color, fortunately. 

We arrive in plenty of time at SWARCO, the system provider that supplies intelligent traffic systems (ITS), with an office in the Netherlands since 2010. SWARCO AG was founded in 1969 in Austria and by now has 80 subsidiaries all over the world. Peter Smit, product manager and one of the initiators of SWARCO Nederland, gives us a warm welcome. They are in the process of fitting out a new floor in the building, because the company is growing so rapidly. 

“There is an entire traffic system connected to it and if it falters it can immediately cause accidents.”

Peter Smit, Product Manager, SWARCO

 

World of details 

Matrixbord

Peter is enthusiastic about the traffic and infrastructure world: “It is a world of details in the area of technology and traffic management, where you really need to know the way. Without a great deal of knowledge and expertise you will not get far, for it is quite a niche market. In terms of the people in ‘infra’, that is also a small world. You quickly get to know a large number of people you encounter on various projects in different capacities and that makes it easy to connect. It might appear small, but that’s deceptive, for it covers the entire spectrum of municipality, province and Rijkswaterstaat (the main road and waterway networks and water systems), right up to the technical suppliers. Your influence is considerable and, in addition, mobility is one of the priorities for the economy. Another great aspect is that it is a wonderful topic to discuss at parties; everyone has an opinion about traffic and their own experience.” 

That is certainly true. Particularly when I’m faced with adverse conditions, I have to admit that I have an opinion about traffic flow. But today it all went smoothly, in spite of the foul weather. Could that be due to the indicators on the matrix displays after all?

SWARCO’s products are traffic control systems (don’t dare say traffic lights!) and traffic signal systems, but also matrix displays, drips (dynamic road information panels), and even the reflective road markings. That is where it all began: using a special process, tiny beads are made from the waste resulting from machining Swarovski figurines. These microbeads are mixed with special paint that is used for marking the road, which mixes easily and reflects admirably well. “Our American plant does not actually hold any stocks; everything they produce is used immediately. All over the world.”

Is this man really saying that there is Swarovski crystal swarf in the road markings? “Yes, there certainly is. And also in the lenses for the LED lights in the matrix displays, by the way. It gives the best clustered light. Crystal clear.”  

The importance of a good network 

PROCENTEC meets SWARCO

You don’t need to explain the importance of a good communications network to SWARCO. The network must be stable and reliable and provide high availability. “There is an entire traffic system connected to it and if it falters it can immediately cause accidents.” In the infra world, interest in networks continues to increase, so much so that they are now seen as an absolute must and are really considered to be the backbone of an entire system. 

A great deal of the production work is outsourced to a sheltered workshop, because SWARCO attaches importance to corporate social responsibility, sustainability and social return. “It meant that we had to strictly standardize our own work processes. Any project-specific customized work that cannot be standardized is carried out at our own office. We are still able to switch solutions right up to a late stage in the production process, because much of the work is standardized and can be tightly scheduled.”

SWARCO’s technical base products still come from abroad but they choose the ‘surrounding skin’ themselves per country and these products are ordered from suppliers in the region. After all, the requirements for traffic systems vary per country, including in the Netherlands. This is how SWARCO found PROCENTEC: they were looking for an expert in the field of PROFIBUS with extremely high-quality products. For a year now, they have been using our hubs on the A4 highway at the Prins Clausplein intersection, in the direction of Amsterdam, and since early this year in the Benelux tunnel as well. “Some time ago, I went to check this set-up and the uptime of this hub was almost the same as the length of time the system had been in use. That could be right, because the system was taken out of production briefly for a test.”

In the past, everything had to be looped through in a bus structure, but now a star structure is used for PROFIBUS, for which they utilize the hubs from PROCENTEC. The network is more flexible and manageable as a result. The fact that the extra ground cable can be connected directly to the hub reduces the level of difficulty significantly, but also the cabling. “These hubs are quite simply robust and, additionally, they look very well-organized.”  

“These hubs are quite simply robust and, additionally, they look very well-organized.”

Peter Smit, Product Manager, SWARCO

Durable solutions   

PLC

I find myself wondering where the cabinets containing an entire traffic management system are located. “You passed overhead matrix displays on the way here, didn’t you? Did you notice the cabinet in the A-construction at the side?’ Peter asks. “Actually yes, when we were stationary in the traffic jam I did notice it. Is a cabinet like that really full of equipment?” We walk towards a test set-up in a large hall where there are man-sized matrix displays and traffic lights and Peter opens a cabinet. “Look, this is a traffic signal system.” 

The cabinet turns out to be only a quarter full. Is this part of the test? No, as it turns out. This is it. There are four pieces of equipment inside, including a ProfiHub B5+RD, a ProfiHub B2 + R, some cables and a laptop. Naturally the laptop is not a standard item. This single SWARCO device, together with the PROCENTEC ProfiHubs, operates a complete traffic signal system – in this case surrounding a bridge. Using this test set-up, they can also easily simulate an extremely intensive traffic system: with the aid of the ProfiHub they can imitate large amounts of signal data in order to place an optimal load on the network. The test set-up does not falter at all. Once all the indoor tests have been concluded successfully, will the system be moved outdoors. Any problems encountered then must be caused by outside factors, such as faulty cabling or cable breaks.

These days, the cabinets no longer have to be so full. Devices are becoming smaller and more durable and the lamps are no longer wired separately. It has all become LED lighting, rendering a meter cabinet full of wires unnecessary and making a considerable difference to the power consumption. “Where a single lamp used to require 60 watts, these days an entire matrix display uses only 15 watts. You’ll notice that as well from the battery required to ensure that a system continues to work for two hours in the event of a power failure. In the past, large batteries were needed, which had to be filled by hand every so often. But now we use small batteries, because the operating system does not consume so much energy anymore.”

Another difference nowadays is that an engineer is no longer required to come and investigate the cabinet if a matrix display is not working: they can now be reached remotely. If it really does go wrong on the road, there is still the possibility of switching off the displays remotely. The traffic no longer sees incorrect information and the technical problem can be solved later. 

On the way back, it’s still raining, but less heavily. The matrix displays are once again the small A4 format I’m familiar with; they are switched off. The road markings are sparkling even more cheerfully, now I know their secret.  

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