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Automation is alive and well in Europe

17 January 2013

Finder is one of Europe’s largest independent manufacturers of electromechanical relays and timers. Charlotte Stonestreet visited the company’s headquarters in Italy to find out what lies behind the success of this family owned business

When telecoms engineer Piero Giordanino devised a step relay to control lighting back in the early 1950s, it is doubtful that he could have predicted where his inventiveness would lead. More than half a century later the company he founded, Finder, is a European leader in relays and timers. In fact, so deeply engrained in Giordanino’s home land of Italy is the company and its products, that the word ‘Finder’ has entered the vernacular and is used as a generic term to refer to a step relay.

To this day the business is still fully owned and run by the family of Piero Giordanino. And in this case ‘family run’ does not mean just turning up for an occasional board meeting – heading up the company as President is Renato Giordanino, Piero’s son, and his daughter, Elisibetta Giordanino, is Technical Director. As an enterprise it is financially and technically independent, carrying out all product development in-house and manufacturing only at its own facilities. In addition to its expansive 31,000m2 headquarters in Almese just west of Turin, Finder has production plants in Sanfront near Cuneo, north west Italy, in Saint Jean de Maurienne, south east France and in Valencia, Spain. Operating under its system of ‘total in-house capability’, the company has the ability to produce  a phenomenal number of relays and timers per day.

Finder’s status as an independent family owned business is very important to its success. It has created a tangible respect amongst the whole workforce that runs deeper than a simple employer/employee relationship. Importantly, rather than having to answer to shareholders, the company is able to take a long term strategic view, investing for the future and enabling it to retain a competitive edge when others in the industry are feeling the effects of the current economic climate.

Unlike many of its competitors, Finder has resisted the temptation to outsource any of its manufacturing to the Far East. This means the company is able to keep very close control over the quality and reliability of everything that it sells. For example every single coil produced by Finder is tested three times during the manufacturing process. The company also boasts the widest range of worldwide quality approvals in its market sector.

Fantastic plastic

In keeping with its philosophy of complete autonomy, Finder has its own plastic moulding departments  which produce all the plastic parts used in the manufacturing of its products. The company uses injection moulding machines that have been selected for efficiency, precision, reduced cycle times, high quality and energy savings. 

The department only uses new, premium grade plastics, and its injection moulding machines for thermoplastics are all linked to an innovative central distribution system, which stores the raw thermoplastic granules in a heat and humidity controlled environment and feeds each machine on demand, optimising efficiency and ensuring the reject rate is negligible. Quality control is paramount, and samples from every machine are checked at least once per hour. More rigorous tests are conducted on these samples several times a day, in accordance with Finder’s ISO 9001:2008 Quality System.

There are also thermoset presses in operation exclusively for the production of the critical terminal moulding – the moulding which retains the electrical terminations. Finder is one of the few relay manufacturers to use thermoset plastics for its high power relays, adding to product performance, quality and safety. Unlike thermoplastics, thermoset plastics retain their strength and shape when hot.

Automated line

One of the most recent developments to take place at the Almese facility has been the introduction of a new fully automated line, which extends production capacity for Finder’s 40 Series miniature PCB electromechanical relay. Designed, developed and built in-house by Finder’s own engineers, from coil-winding to final testing, the automated process feeds in plastic parts, contact blades, coils and pins to assemble the body of the relay; whilst the thermal transfer printer marks the relay cover which is then placed on top of the relay to be sealed.  

As well as testing the relays three times during the production process, the new automated line also conducts 100% final testing, which includes tests for dielectric strength, holding voltage, must drop out voltage and contact resistance. As well as enhancing Finder’s rigorous quality control procedures, continuous investment in highly automated production lines helps the company remain competitive by enabling enhanced efficiency throughout the manufacturing process.

Another example of investment in automation can be found in the groundbreaking new assembly machine for the company’s 55 Series general purpose ‘ice cube’ relay. The ‘Alba’, (Italian for ‘dawn’) is the latest development in the automation of the 55 Series and has brought a significant step up in performance. Like all of Finder’s assembly machines, it has been completely designed and built in-house, and is the result of years of development and innovation.  

One feature of the Alba sees the wires which connect the contact carrier to the relay’s electrical terminations being cut, crimped and welded, thus eliminating the need to use flux and solder. This cleaner process means that relays no longer require a washing process prior to final testing.

To accommodate the production of printed circuit boards, and the assembly of products that use them – such as timers, monitoring relays and energy-saving lighting control products – Finder has recently added a 3500m2 electronics department at Almese. By using this PCB capability together with its own relays in existing, or easily adapted housings, the company can react to market demand by developing and launching new products within a relatively short space of time.

The electronics department incorporates measures designed to protect components against electrostatic discharge (ESD), ensuring that any ESD voltage is limited to less than 100V. Certification has been obtained according to standard CEI EN 61340-5-1 through point-to-ground (PTG) testing, which measures the resistance between the floor and the ground node, as well as point-to-point (PTPq) testing, which measures the resistance between two points on the floor at a one metre distance from one another. The test results have also taken into account the level of ambient humidity, which is also controlled. 

Finder has created an Electrostatic Protected Area (EPA) using static dissipative flooring. Discharge current levels that would otherwise be damaging to electronic components are avoided through dissipation under ‘controlled’ conditions. This flooring system enables operators to move freely throughout the entire area using suitable anti-static equipment, while visitors can access the departments without any special equipment, provided they walk along the dedicated routes, avoiding contact with any objects.

The surface mount technology equipment installed in the electronics department comprises ‘best in class’ machines, all selected for their specification, performance, reliability and quality. The UK manufactured screen printers offer high degrees of flexibility and have a proven 6 Sigma performance, with a state-of-the-art visual inspection. These PCB printers feed into the US manufactured pick and place machines with dual-beam (2-module) platforms. The pick and place machines also have integrated cameras to provide visual inspection, which are in turn linked to high efficiency convection reflow ovens.

Play darts with World Champion Wolfie!

Taking a slight departure from the norm, Finder has invited Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams to join Finder on its stand at the Southern Manufacturing & Electronics Exhibition in Farnborough on 13-14 February. Visitors to the stand will have the chance to challenge Wolfie to a leg of darts, and the opportunity to win some great prizes.

Finder subsidiaries here in the UK and in The Netherlands have sponsored Wolfie and the referees at the World Darts Championship for a number of years.

Be sure to stop by Stand C24 to say hello and have a go!

Product development

As you would expect, Finder’s investment in its production facilities is more than complemented by its range of products. Over the years the company has produced over 10,000 different products and continues to be at the forefront of innovation in its sector, reacting to the needs of its customers. One of the latest products to be launched by the company is the 70 Series of modular rail-mounted monitoring relays, which offers maximum flexibility in monitoring a range of electrical supply parameters, in compact, easy to adjust units.

Addressing increasing health and safety demands and the need to protect valuable equipment, the 70 Series features ‘positive safety logic’, and will ensure that any failure mode results in the output relay assuming its de-energised position. With a selectable fault memory (lock-out), safety is increased by preventing uncontrolled restarting of equipment.

With a wide range of adjustments to maximise application flexibility, the monitoring relays feature two or three colour LED indicators for immediate visual indication of supply status. The functions and values are programmable from the front face, simplifying set-up and adjustment.

Another new product, the Astro 12.81 time switch, has been designed for applications where the need to control lighting, temperature or other functions according to daylight hours exists. The easily programmable time switch employs a unique digital program to calculate sunrise and sunset times by simply entering the location’s postcode with a single joystick.

To find out more about these products and Finder’s complete range, be sure to visit the company on Stand C24 at Southern Manufacturing 2013.