Mil tech gets smart with OpenVPX, VXS designs: Q&A with Dr. Gunter Zahnenbenz, CEO at Hartmann Electronik

Dr. Günter Zahnenbenz, CEO at Hartmann Electronik, shares his thoughts on the future of VXS and his company's plans for establishing themselves in the OpenVPX marketplace for years to come.

1Editor’s note: Providing “intelligent solutions” (aka backplanes, chassis, and power supplies) for the military and industrial markets is all in a day’s work at Hartmann Elektronik. While it might appear the company has been standoffish when it comes to OpenVPX, the company’s CEO, Dr. Günter Zahnenbenz, says that’s a wrong impression. He also tells why the company still holds hope for the less-rising VXS star.

VME: Can you remind us briefly what Hartmann Electronik’s technology focal point is, and how many employees and locations it has.

ZAHNENBENZ: Hartmann Electronik provides design and manufacturing with a focus of system chassis, backplanes, and power supplies. Hartmann Electronik is part of the ELCOM division of Phoenix Mecano. Along with sister company W-IE-NE-R Plein & Baus GmbH, we have 150 employees in 3 manufacturing locations. Phoenix Mecano, a global manufacturer of mechanical/electromechanical products, employs almost 6,000 people, with 55 subsidiaries in 26 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Brazil, Australia, Tunisia, Singapore, and China. In addition, we have 19 production and assembly manufacturing locations worldwide.

VME: Hartmann specializes in backplanes, system platforms, and intelligent solutions. What do you mean by “intelligent solutions”?

ZAHNENBENZ: Essentially, to us, the phrase “intelligent solutions” means three things:

  1. The experience/expertise gained over 35 years in designing 5,000+ custom high-speed backplane layouts. Today’s designs demand ever-increasing speed and throughput, so our designs continue to evolve to allow customers to fully utilize the latest processors. OpenVPX, with its high-density RT2 connectors, is a perfect example of how market demands require more sophisticated, intelligent designs.
  2. From a historical perspective, originally backplanes were only passive. Today’s technology incorporates active components such as bridges and switches.
  3. To support our customers’ needs for system management, we offer local and remote monitoring and control, temperature-controlled cooling, voltage monitoring, and system reboot/on/off, including a WEB server and SNMPv2 compliant protocol.

VME: What are the biggest challenges your mil & aero customers face? What is the technical solution?

ZAHNENBENZ: The challenges our customers face in the mil/aero space include Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP), for one thing. Also, increasing power density on board-level products places extreme demands in power and cooling performance. And the need for increasing speeds, currently up to 10 GHz, pushes manufacturers such as Hartmann to continue improving the design.

[Another challenge is that] military programs commonly last 15 to 20 years, while the lifespan of industrial applications is commonly 3 to 5 years. Hartmann is able to meet both [lifespan] challenges.

VME: You’re a member of the VSO’s VXS Marketing Alliance, at the same time some in the industry say VXS is a proverbial falling star.

ZAHNENBENZ: Well, of course, VXS is a new VITA standard (VITA 41) that combines the 320 MBps parallel VME bus with high-speed serial fabrics of up to 2.5 GBps. We think of VXS, performance-wise, as an interim technology between VME64x and VPX. Drawing upon the large, well-established ecosystem of VME-based products, VXS provides a necessary bridge between the two technologies.

VME: Has Hartmann had any VXS contract wins?

ZAHNENBENZ: W-IE-NE-R Plein & Baus GmbH/Hartmann was selected in September 2010 as vendor for a major VXS chassis program for the Hall-D project at Jefferson Lab in Virginia, USA. So the W-IE-NE-R 21-slot VXS crates will house the new JLAB data acquisition modules. The crates are outfitted with Hartmann Electronik 21-slot VXS backplanes and are microprocessor controlled, low-noise 3 kW power supplies as well as high-performance cooling fan trays.

VME: Hartmann has produced some VPX products, but it appears you’ve kept away from the OpenVPX side of things?

ZAHNENBENZ: That is a wrong impression. On the contrary, we think of OpenVPX as a future core business of Hartmann. And, in fact, we already have five different backplanes based on OpenVPX and are working daily on more products. In addition, we have introduced several new products to support VPX, such as an open frame development chassis, preconfigured chassis, load boards, test adapters, and we have a small developer chassis in development.

VME: Will VPX/OpenVPX’s remain dominant in the industry in the next decade, or will the rugged SFF space be taken over by the emerging VITA 73, 74, and 75 standards instead?

ZAHNENBENZ: Within the next 10 years the OpenVPX standard will become even more established, while VITA 73, 74, and 75 will be solutions for special applications.

VME: Does Hartmann plan on utilizing the VITA 73, 74, and 75 small form factors when they are complete?

ZAHNENBENZ: Because we are so customer driven at Hartmann Electronik, that will be decided by the marketplace and customer [when the time comes]. If there is a need for those products, Hartman Electronik will certainly set up products based on these specifications.

VME: New optical interconnects are touted to perhaps make backplanes obsolete, at least in some applications. Do you think backplanes will ever be completely obsolete?

ZAHNENBENZ: We have been hearing these statements for more than 20 years now. It is a fact that some backplanes are going to be replaced permanently in some applications by solutions without a backplane. But it is also a fact that new backplane-based applications are arising continuously. So we do not predict that backplanes will disappear in the near future. CS

Dr. Günter Zahnenbenz is CEO of Hartmann Electronik, where he has worked since 1984. By 1986, he was CEO and a major shareholder. In 2000, Phoenix Mecano AG, a Swiss stock exchange holding, merged the shares of Hartmann. Today, he is CEO of Hartmann and W-IE-NE-R Plein & Baus GmbH, both companies under the roof of Phoenix Mecano AG, developing system platforms for military programs, nuclear research, and industrial applications. He studied Economics in Stuttgart Hohenheim and earned his doctorate in 1984.

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