The partnership between OHB and Deutsche Bahn AG, which has proven itself over decades, remains strong despite the pandemic: The experts of OHB’s PCS (Process Control Systems) division are continuing to work on DB’s systems to maintain or install their control systems, while observing all pandemic-related requirements of course.
Working in the track bed despite corona
“We are currently working with three colleagues on a project in Uelzen. In addition to observing the standard precautions – such as keeping your distance and washing your hands – we are attaching great importance to streamlining the work on the construction site at the moment,” says Erik Hüttl, project coordinator at PCS. In this way, the PCS team can prevent too many people from working on a signal box at the same time. “Fortunately, OHB already has some protective equipment in stock and we will of course be transporting these to the construction site: face coverings, gloves and disinfectants have been organized and we even have our own mobile water tank complete with a tap to ensure that staff can wash their hands at the site even if there is no running water available. In this way, we, our customers and our subcontractors are all equipped to handle all situations,” adds Christian Drewes, Head of Consulting and Station Control Technology Projects.
But why does OHB even have an “earth-based e-mobility team” in the first place?
True, they are a different species to those employees who devote all their time and attention to space travel. For example, they have only one customer. Although this makes a lot of things easier in some respects, it does mean that they cannot afford to rest on their laurels given that the competition is always lurking in the background. In addition, these competitors are much larger. However, this is a situation that we are familiar with from our activities in space. Business is confined to Germany. They do not shoot anything to the moon or anywhere else. Instead, they make sure that people and goods get safely from A to B in an environment-friendly way. This is e-mobility written big!
The PCS division was founded within the OHB Group back in 1975 but has nothing to do with space today. But it does have its roots there as it involves technology that was originally developed in space and has now been transferred for use in industrial products and services. More precisely, our PCS industry division provides its products and services for the German railway company Deutsche Bahn. They are used for the remote control and automation of the DB-Energie’s own electricity network, which operates at 110 kV on the distribution network level throughout Germany and at switching points linking it to Austria and Switzerland. At the 15 kV level, the contact wire is individually supplied with power so that the trains can always run – even if a branch falls on the overhead contact line in winter when the snow falls, causing a short circuit. The 40 odd members of OHB’s process control technology team offer a comprehensive range of products and services for automating and controlling sophisticated railway infrastructure processes. PCS also provides the communication technology required for this together with the IT security needed to meet current requirements, including full-scale stand-by service. Let’s take a brief look back to 1975 and Munich: with just under 30 employees at the time, the space company Kayser-Threde GmbH established a new “Railways” division. The aim was to leverage the expertise that had been amassed in controlling and regulating power grids developed to deliver the payloads for high-altitude research rockets and to take it to the next level, specifically the power grid operated by Deutsche Bahn. Having previously been responsible for ensuring correct electrical power supplies for the individual experiments on board the research rockets, the newly established division now set about ensuring that each individual locomotive on Deutsche Bahn’s electrified network received the power it required.
In keeping with OHB’s DNA, the small “Railways” division also displayed a great deal of courage, trusting in its own ability and offering the customer a solution that proved its credentials.Based at OHB’s site in Oberpfaffenhofen, the PCS team continue to engineer control systems for the electrical power supply of trains. These systems are used to control, regulate and monitor DB’s primary technical components such as transformers, high-voltage switches and converters across the entire German railway network. Secondary control technology is used for monitoring the condition of the system and for controlling the switches. “We monitor DB Energie’s entire process data network, immediately notice if something is wrong and can thus take appropriate measures together with our customer,” explains Bernhard Winkler, PCS Division Manager.
PCS’s range includes crucial secondary technical system components and services that are required for the operation of the electrical grid. With its network and security components, the PCS communications team handle communications with the control centers for the above-mentioned tasks. Over the course of four decades, PCS has performed its own development, installation and maintenance work out of conviction. In response to the introduction of complex international standards for secondary technology and driven by its determination to become a technology leader in station control technology for DB Energie, PCS brought a technology partner on board in 2016. This partner now supplies the hardware and software platforms. “PCS is on an equal footing with the customer in terms of process expertise. This makes it easy to implement the appropriate intelligence in the devices and to use this as a basis for creating a fully functional overall system,” says PCS head Bernhard Winkler. PCS has been supplying Deutsche Bahn AG with systems for controlling the supply of power to trains for almost 45 years. “As a system integrator for secondary technology, we also integrate externally produced components sourced from different OEMs in our own system and combine them to form a functioning overall system – basically just as OHB does in its role as a system integrator in space,” explains Bernhard Winkler.
A great deal already achieved
What was technically even possible in this area at the end of the 1970s? If a short circuit occurred, it was only possible to determine where it had been triggered on the network. Then certain switches had to be reactivated manually at the substation concerned. From 1981, DB’s systems were already capable of being controlled remotely while the third generation of station control technology enabled higher-quality automation functions such as measurement data acquisition and fault positioning to be implemented from 1993. “As system architects, we drove all three steps forward,” says Bernhard Winkler. He has heard in stories how proud the company was to be the first to implement microcomputers and later embedded computer systems in this area in the mid-1970s. This proved to be a wise decision because it gave the company a decisive lead over other traditional suppliers of railway components. In addition, PCS was already regarded as an essential system partner for DB Energie from 1976, establishing itself as a market leader in Germany in the mid-1990s. In fact, back in the 1990s, PCS was the only supplier of station control technology for a number of years as its only competitor at the time was simply not up to engineering the innovations that were required. “Currently, 280 station control systems supplied by OHB are in active operation. All told, we have supplied a total of around 550 station control systems in the various generations over the last four decades,” explains Bernhard Winkler. “We have delivered around 150 protocol converters and equipped nine control centers currently in use with high-availability cluster systems for important support functions for the control center as well as with communications technology and IT security systems from OHB. These have been joined by more than 400 wireless data backup routes for DB Energie’s VPN (virtual private network), including IT security so that the switchgear can continue to be controlled securely even in the event of a failure of the wired VPN.” In its activities, PCS applies foresight – not only in technical terms, but also in a very concrete way: “We keep supplies of components and assemblies in stock so that we have sufficient spare parts over the secondary life cycle of the switchgear for a period of 20 years if any repairs are necessary,” reports Winkler.
PCS has a lot planned
After all the years, PCS understands Deutsche Bahn’s needs and is able to offer the systems required. On top of this, however, it has also been able to establish itself as a system architect and technology leader. “Thanks to the PCS team’s expertise, we will have an even broader footprint in the future. There is a lot going on in the power market outside the railway segment, and the demand for services of the type offered by PCS is very high. In addition, the foundations have already been set for working with a second customer, DB Netz AG,” says Pedro Schmid, Head of Business Development for Process Control Technology.
The starting point was the contract for preliminary and design planning of the track field for the new digital signal box to be built in Göttingen. PCS seized this opportunity, building up broad-based expertise in power supply systems and encrypted IP data communication for networking digital signal boxes and related outdoor systems. Now, PCS obviously also wants to become a system supplier and system integrator in this field. Working with DB and a mid-sized signal box manufacturer, it thus oversaw the installation of a demonstration system in Germany’s Harz region in the summer of 2019. Senior representatives of DB Netz AG were extremely impressed with the practical implementation of the system with the new components for digital signaling technology, stating that the project marked an important milestone on the way towards a digital railway infrastructure. “Once again, we have been able to
show that we are very open to technical progress and innovations. We want to continue being the preferred partner when it comes to embarking on new future-oriented paths,” says Pedro Schmid.
In addition to the Harz-Weser network, DB Netz AG is also working on three further pre-series projects in which PCS wants to play a significant role ahead of the large-scale replacement of all 2,600 signal boxes with digital systems, which is scheduled to start in 2023. Climate change, Fridays for Future and sustainability are on everyone’s lips. The energy transition has also entered the mainstream in terms of the attention it garners. “I am driven by the desire to help shape the energy transition and perhaps even to eliminate only a small part of carbon emissions through our intelligent technology and solutions,” says Bernhard Winkler. This is also where things come full circle with OHB’s space business given that it also provides applications that offer benefits for people on an encouragingly frequent basis. “We have laid the right foundations for making sure that PCS can form a part of Germany’s digital railways,” adds Bernhard Winkler.