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WILL PANEL BUILDERS SOON RULE THE WORLD?

6 January 2011

Panel builders are the foot soldiers of the control and electrical engineering industry, and like today’s infantryman their job is undergoing radical technological change. Stuart Harvey of SoftStart UK predicts how things will develop over the next two-to-five years.

Nuclear physicist, rocket scientist, panel builder: they are all at the cutting edge of technology, and the country would soon grind to a halt without the least glamorous of these groups!

Today, automation and control are everywhere. Manufacturing and industry use it to constantly improve quality and productivity; public buildings are environments controlled to a tee; retailers use automation to order their stock with military precision – while monitoring every detail of consumer behaviour; mass transport is more automated than ever; schools, hospitals, sports centres are all installing specialist systems.

Yet the image of a wireman remains as an old codger doing what he’s been doing since he realised that he was never going to make the billing on Top of the Pops or be regularly picked by Bill Shankley.

But the truth is panel building ain’t what it was, nor what it will be. Its technology is subject to constant change and improvement and today the rate of change is probably faster than ever. Another potent driving force is legislation, which constantly redefines safety and environmental performance. And control panels are not going to escape the drive for energy efficiency

In recent years we have seen the contrary effects of the ebb and flow of the wider economy. As business levels turned down, control gear manufacturers tried to secure their share of orders by winning buyers over with improved products and new technologies. Simultaneously, they thought laterally to find ways to take cost out of their customers’ activities.

This last point is very significant. Previously, the battle cry was always ‘cut costs’. But increasingly now the drive is to improve value, add functionality, integrate operations, improve performance, increase systems’ working life, design out operating costs, cut energy use, reduce downtime.

And the humble control panel is at the heart of all the above.

Our teenage kids are, of course, showing us the way. When did you last see a youngster with separate phone, camera and computer? Using integrated technologies is one of the great driving forces of the day, and panel builders are the people who will provide the integration at industrial systems level. Traditional industrial functions, such as driving pumps and conveyors, air knives and tunnel ovens must be integrated with one another and with ever-more monitoring functions. Then they must be sequenced with other production plant. Energy consumption has to be optimised like never before and safety must be maintained. Meanwhile raw data needs to be processed into high level information for feeding into the business systems, so computers need to be integrated into control panels – and they in turn need to integrate with computers in the offices above the production floor.

Control technology, therefore has a lot of goals to achieve. Fortunately manufacturers, such as Hyundai, Power Electronics Inc and ASEM, amongst others are ahead of the curve. They are already integrating products and technologies, adding massive single-chip intelligence to previously dumb components, giving them communications capability, and developing drives and soft starts to new levels.

A good example of this is the HMI (human machine interface). A flat screen graphical display that is easy to install and intuitive to use, a single HMI can replace an array of warning lights that would need to be individually wired-in and which would provide only the crudest of information. Just a few years ago a power station or oil refinery would require a control room of many square metres just to house the mimics and operating desks – they were not dissimilar to NASA’s Mission Control or evil Dr No’s underground command centre. Now all that functionality can be provided by a couple of well programmed HMIs in a control panel.

Today nearly all businesses need to collect data from multiple sources, including production output, energy consumption, stock levels, plant performance and market predictions. This all needs to be analysed instantly and production plans automatically drawn up. The information has to be displayed to many people – in many locations and in many different formats. In short the control panels are increasingly being integrated with the enterprise management computer systems.

It is a fact of life that there is never adequate budget to realise the dreams of senior management, so panel builders have to look for new technologies to help keep costs under control. Plug and play equipment pulls out installation costs; integrated technologies are usually far cheaper than separate; modular software can be used like building blocks to create the perfect system for most applications.

There is, naturally, a relationship between panel size and cost, so miniaturised and compact solutions become attractive.

Another natural phenomenon is that once a panel has been installed for a few months, the powers-that-be will want to change it, with more functions, greater speed or integration with other parts of the production process. Modern, modular plug and play, control gear is designed for just this; reconfiguration is often now very simple where previously it could be next to impossible. Trendy marketing types call this ‘future proofing’ - wiremen prefer the term ‘sensible’, but when talking to the boss will say ‘reduced downtime’.

Safety has come to the fore in recent years, redefining panel layouts and acceptable practices. The need now is to make things absolutely idiot-proof and again today’s control gear manufacturers have risen to the challenge by designing out inherent problems and even making installation mistakes virtually impossible.

In conclusion, there has been and continues to be massive innovation in control gear design and panel builders have to constantly refine and develop their skills level. As businesses increasingly move to solutions-based management, control engineers will have to keep expanding their roles and responsibilities.

We have seen that technology is able to keep up with this trend. It is to be hoped that salaries and respect will also follow suit.

For more information please contact:

Stuart Harvey, SoftStart UK, 14 Brinell Way, Harfeys Industrial Estate, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, NR31 0LU  Tel +44(0) 1493 660510 Email: sales@softstartuk.com  Web: www.softstartuk.com
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