Rene Meuleman takes a trip down memory lane to look at some of the technical innovations that inspired his future, and at the same time, Eurotherm’s success in the glass industry.
This year is an important landmark both for Eurotherm and myself, as Eurotherm celebrates its 50th anniversary, and I my 60th birthday. While looking back through the historic milestones of Eurotherm I had many recollections of the different eras, remembering when new technologies came along and how they changed the way we did things and ultimately how those improvements shaped the glass industry at that time.
Let’s start this sentimental journey in 1955, 60 years ago when I was born in The Hague, in the Netherlands, ten years before Eurotherm was founded and Sir Alastair Pilkington developed his famous tin bath float glass process. I grew up in the era of the electronic tube (also known as vacuum/electron tube, or valve), and at the age of ten became highly interested in electronics. Although John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley invented the transistor in 1947, it took eight years before they became commercially available in 1955, and it was in 1965 that I was able to build my first radio receiver with the famous DL and DF series battery. In that year, The Beatles launched the Rubber Soul album, The Rolling Stones released (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction and Eurotherm was founded.
The company began with the release of a new control product, the Mk1 controller which in true entrepreneur fashion was designed in one of the founders’ garage workshops. It was the first solid state controller, successful as it exploited the latest transistor technology, to solve difficulties in the semiconductor industry within the silicon crystal manufacturing process, providing the crucial level of temperature control accuracy required for what at the time, was a new and fast growing industry. It soon found its way into many temperature related
applications including the glass industry.
For me, although my first AM tube radio performed relatively well, I was of course also attracted by this new type of electronic component and transistors were immediately purchased for my second radio receiver. I spent my whole month’s pocket money on that first OC-71 transistor which sadly didn’t even perform as well as the tubes. Some years later I started using Philips NORbits at school which were plastic cuboids in several colours with two rows of pins, eight on one side and nine on the other. In fact they were transistor-diode logic circuits embedded in resin and in appearance they resembled huge DIL (Dual In Line) chips, except for the different pin count on each side.
Moving into the glam rock era of the early 1970s, Intel introduced its first 4-bit microprocessor the 4004, enabling another leap forward in technology for Eurotherm which also led to the creation of a new spin-off control automation company some readers may remember, TCS (Turnbull control systems). Its founder George Turnbull recalls his first visit in 1974 to Pilkington in the UK, to see first-hand the problems they were encountering in the manufacture of ophthalmic glass which requires a complex multi-stage process to produce. He understood very well that the process requires extremely high precision temperature control for long periods of time and the visit became
the backdrop to his development of the ‘MATRIC’ System. This utilised early microprocessor technology in combination with Eurotherm’s control expertise to help resolve glass quality processing problems, and brought system architecture to the Eurotherm product range for the very first time. The S6000 series followed, and Turnbull Control Systems (TCS) was soon supplying systems to all kinds of glass manufacturers, operating across every continent along with another automation related Eurotherm spin-off company, Shackleton System Drives (SSD).
After electrical and electronics technical study, I entered my first job at Vereenigde Glasfabrieken in Maastricht, Netherlands, as a cold-end trouble shooter. At that time there were still four rotating bottle blowing machines and four pneumatic drum IS (Individual Section) machines running there. I got involved in the first DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) PDP (Programmed Data Processors) and Emhart IS-machine timing systems and the company installed their first DCS (Distributed Control System) furnace control system. I learned about operational amplifiers and 7400 and C-MOS 4000 series logic ICs (Integrated Circuits) which were used in some cold end equipment. At that time there were also still tube based “warp and dip” and optical crack detectors used for glass bottle and jar defect detection, as well as glass level measurement equipment. The NNPB (Narrow Neck Press and Blow) bottle manufacturing process was developed which led to 30% of weight reduction. It was around that time that Queen had their hit with "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the Apple-1 computer was launched, bringing computer technology closer to our everyday lives.
In between 1980 and 2000, process control developed quickly and became increasingly more powerful. Eurotherm developed MaxiVis, a proprietary DCS that enabled the move into larger applications; followed by its first true DCS the Tactician T1000 with built in graphic display and graphic block configurator. It was a great fit for the glass industry and in fact remains in use in some older plants even today. Windows NT based HMI workstations entered the industry and based on the available historical data I started getting more interested in advanced control so I did some study on Fuzzy-Logic and MPC (Model Predictive Control). In this era the world moved from music like Gary Numan’s “We are Glass” to Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse” and the world became aware of the possibly disastrous millennium bug problem. I remember spending the night in our control room, in contact with many of my colleagues in other locations; nothing happened, other than missing out on the fireworks and having a glass of champagne at 1 a.m. instead of midnight.
So we entered a new millennium and developed new furnace control methods to save energy and reduce NOx emissions, and I got unexpectedly invited to start working for Eurotherm, which I did. Eurotherm had just released their EPower controller which won the 2008 Engineers Choice Award. It was the most advanced power controller of its time, capable of predictive load management and automatic load tap changing. The T2750PAC soon followed, bringing our most advanced redundant control to the glass industry and in 2014 we became part of Schneider Electric, enabling us to provide complete glass plant automation and power systems with global support.
By joining Eurotherm, I got an opportunity to have a look inside the heart of the company and understand the glass industry from a completely different point of view. I still believe that the industry is too risk averse and too conservative. However, I find myself explaining internally why they act like they do more often. It seems to me that Eurotherm has, and always will be a step in front of their customers, which is in fact in our DNA and we hopefully will not change that. It is for my colleagues and me to keep on trying to convince our customers to take advantage of the benefits of modern process and power control more quickly, to catch up with us and force us to keep on developing even faster.
The pace in which the industry develops is set by commercial and competitive forces and considerations, and I suppose it will remain that way. Those who continue to innovate to stay in front of their competition will survive. That is how evolution works and why there is DNA. Eurotherm has lived on that principal for the last 50 years and due to its dedicated team will keep doing so for many years to come. I hope to be part of that development for many years as well, so it is with hand on heart that I say Eurotherm: “Happy Anniversary!”
Originally published in Glass Worldwide magazine.