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Recognising the status of the panel builder

11 February 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. In this personal account, Stuart Harvey 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 improve quality and productivity; public buildings are environments that are precisely controlled; retailers use automation to order their stock against sales in real time 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 a back-room worker 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. The 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 frequently redefines safety and environmental performance. And control panels are not going to escape the drive for energy efficiency either.

In recent years we have experienced the 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 this.

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, of course, 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 driving the technology 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 - not dissimilar to NASA's mission control centres or the evil Dr No's underground command hub. 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 as it happens and production plans automatically created and adjusted. The information has to be displayed to many people, in many locations and in many different formats. As a result, 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 equipment start to become attractive options.

Another natural phenomenon in this industry is that once a panel has been installed for a few months, the powers-that-be will want to change it, desiring 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 eventuality; reconfiguration is often now very simple, where previously it could be next to impossible. The trendy marketing hype calls this 'future proofing'; wiremen prefer the term 'sensible', but when talking to the boss, are likely to 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.

Stuart Harvey is with SoftStart UK

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