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The changing face of panel building

11 October 2012

The phrase, “Time and tide wait for no man”, can certainly be applied to the panel building industry, which has clearly changed over the years, and mostly for the better. Jeremy Lester offers an insight into the way modern panel building methods and practices have evolved - and why.

Jeremy Lester
Jeremy Lester

In any industry, changes and improvements will occur as new technologies and products are ‘invented’. That is the nature of things. But in a fiercely competitive environment, there is another driver of change: cost; the cost of manufacture and the cost of purchase, both being inextricably linked. And, as far as the subject of this article is concerned – panel building - competition has been both creator and driver of some great ideas and products. 

It takes time to design, purchase and build a panel. If you can save time in each of these areas, you can reduce costs and become more competitive - so long as quality is not compromised, that is. Thankfully, we have international standards to comply with, enabling customers to specify and buy with confidence from reputable suppliers. 

For decades, the humble DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung) rail has played a major role in the basic design of panels, speeding assembly and rationalising the use of panel space. This standard is now embraced across Europe (EN) and internationally (ISO). There are now ‘Top hat’, C type and G types of DIN rail, and while it was originally developed to mount terminal blocks, in recent years many more types of component have been designed to be DIN rail mounted, including instrumentation, relays, power supplies, thermostats, timers and so on. That means less time spent ‘fitting’ - ie drilling holes, mounting modules and equipment using stand-offs and nuts and bolts.

Indeed, quick fitting products are now firmly the order of the day. An example of this is quick fitting pushbuttons and indicators. With these it is not necessary to remove a contact block in order to fit the part. Instead, the front pushbutton or lamp part simply comes free using a small ejector button; the unit is then fed through from behind the panel, and the top clicked back into place again – a job completed in seconds.

Fan and filter products have also become ‘snap in’ for quicker fitting and reduced manufacturing time, and these products are now more compact, more powerful and more efficient, enabling panels to be made smaller, saving on cost and also shipping weight.

Products have also become more modular in their design.  For example timers and contactors are now available in standard widths of 17.5mm, 22mm, and 35mm, so designs and procedures are less ‘custom’ and more ‘standard’.  And with modular products has come more compact products too. These save space, need smaller enclosures, use less cable and the assembly time is also reduced as a result.

Total cost of ownership
Beyond the initial purchase cost, purchasers and operators of panel products are increasingly being urged to consider the total cost of ownership of their assets. Take the low power LED as a replacement for filament lamps as an example. This has not only contributed to reducing energy consumption but has also reduced maintenance costs thanks to the considerably extended life of the LED alternative. Similarly, power supplies are now based on switched mode technology that does away with the costly transformer and is also much more efficient power-wise.

Indeed, through the intelligent use of electronics and software, almost every component that consumes power is more efficient. Think how much PLCs and industrial PCs have contributed to energy saving as they replace those power-hungry banks of electromagnetic relays!

Aesthetics and ergonomics have changed too. The utilitarian cabinet of the past has benefited from conscious efforts to improve styling, while manual controls such as isolator actuators have become safer and far easier to use thanks to better design. Even the colour of a panel has become the object of change with, for example, the switch from RAL7032 to RAL7035.

In the early days of panel building wiring looms were hand ‘whipped’ using a single strand of nylon cord. This was a very labour intensive process and also created problems when modifications or upgrades were needed. Somewhat uglier cable ties were used for a time, then in came spiral nylon wrap that fits into place in seconds and can also be removed and refitted rapidly to enable subsequent modifications.

Health and safety legislation, too, has had a huge impact on panel design. Consider, for example, the use of screening shrouds on high voltage equipment to prevent electric shock. Early shrouding was often little more than a piece of clip-on non-conductive material that was affixed to manufacturers’ existing ranges of electrical equipment. Now, legislation has seen the introduction of much better ‘built in’ shrouding and additional safety mechanisms.

Parts procurement
Panel builders generally want the ordering process to be as simple as possible in order to achieve a quick turnaround. This is where the one-stop-shop supplier can help. There is a trend in the market for so-called ‘consignment stock’ where the panel builder holds stock with a particular supplier and only draws down from that stock on an ‘as needed’ basis, paying for what has been taken on a monthly basis. This offers cost savings in terms of component ordering times, administrative costs, and reduced shipping costs.

As an alternative to the consignment stock route, where goods are required to be available off-the-shelf, a panel builder may prefer to receive a kit of parts from their supplier on a just-in-time basis to suit their particular project schedules.

Though it may not be every panel builder’s cup of tea, the single supplier approach does have its advantages. Deal with someone who understands the business of panel building and provides a simple, hassle-free way of ordering - preferably a distributor with a strong engineering background who can answer your technical questions – and you are well on the way to achieving an efficient and rewarding procurement process. 

Jeremy Lester is CEO, Switchtec

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