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Control panel design for the future
Panel builders constantly struggle against price pressures and the need to meet tight delivery schedules, but the possibilities are expanding thanks to new CAE software that streamlines the design and construction of control cabinets, switchboards and flexible power distribution systems. Ken Christie of Eplan explains how panel builders can significantly reduce their design and production costs.
Electrical engineering and related disciplines have always embraced innovative technology and efficient processes. As industry has steadily increased its movement toward full data digitisation, aided by increasing bandwidth and speed of data delivery across networks, a new infrastructure model has emerged and this is now starting to impact the panel building sector.
The powerful combination of CAE software and complex, dynamic databases that are now available helps with documentation and the production of bills of materials, and also supports greater integration and communication between a company’s various departments. No longer will you lose time because of redundant data, reverse engineering, manual data transfer or mis-synchronisation of data. Changes to data can now be applied across the entire spectrum of the project and documentation in real time.
Functionality specifically designed to aid panel builders is now available. Take, for instance, working with copper busbar systems; a good CAE system makes this easier, faster and more certain. All the necessary data on drill holes, punching, bending angles and radii can be provided in the form of drawings and in machine-readable form. This data is then available for use by automated production machines, or by the production workers where busbar fabrication is carried out manually.
The same technology and ideas can be extended to the control of automatic cable and wire assembly machines. Even future-oriented technologies such as automated assembly of terminal strips or the robotic wiring of equipment are supported.
Whether assembly is manual or automated, the best CAE packages deliver important benefits. They will, for example, calculate the optimum routes for wires and cables, even checking how full the wire ducts are. Automatic length calculation increases productivity and reduces costly wire and cable waste. And, since there is no need for manual calculations and pre-assembly of wires, big efficiency increases in production and assembly can be achieved.
Today’s CAE and panel building systems give users the flexibility to design and even build panels before the schematics are finalised. This cuts the manufacturing time, and also means that bills of materials can be generated early in the process, allowing long lead time components to be identified and ordered well in advance. In other words, using a CAE system for panel design and manufacture is an important aid to prudent and effective planning.
By prioritising the mechanical design of the panel, it is also possible to make decisions at the start of the development process that can usefully inform later decision making. Take cooling for instance; will the cabinet require a fan or an air conditioner? Dealing with the mechanical design first readily allows questions like this to be answered.
The drag-and-drop functionality offered by the best CAE packages for panel builders also makes it easy to validate component placement. Each surface of the panel can be managed independently within a navigation window, creating separate views which engineers can quickly verify and which provide invaluable guidance for the build phase.
Customised configuration and 3D prototyping are other new features panel builders will find in the latest CAE packages. These show the devices for assembly in navigators or construction lists. The 3D technology then allows the user to align the ‘virtual components’ on the computer screen and position them exactly. Fitting regulations and minimum distances based on manufacturer requirements are taken into consideration, as are the correct positioning of equipment, wiring ducts, and support rails. The 3D model makes it easy to rotate and turn the enclosure and view all the potential weak points that could occur during manufacturing. It allows engineers to identify any collisions and view all potential risks that could happen in the build phase – which is virtually impossible with a traditional 2D system.
The best CAE packages offer important benefits beyond the design and production environments. They provide interfaces for integration with the IT infrastructure of the company, thereby enabling efficient data transfer. This not only produces seamless results for the project engineers, but the readily available data from the engineering and production teams is also beneficial to commercial departments. Sales, marketing, customer service and financial departments can all benefit from access to consistent, real time data.
The same integration can be applied to customers by providing a portal for the delivered product that extends the relationship with the customer post-sale. Preventative maintenance, local repairs, digital documentation that stays with the machine, updates, and other communication not only maintain a higher level of customer service, but act as sales and marketing tools as well.
The panel builder’s life has never been an easy one, and probably never will be. Customers routinely want more for less and they always want it delivered faster. There’s no magic wand solution, but the latest CAE software, as we’ve seen, can go a long way toward helping panel builders meet the challenges and demands of their customers, as well as giving them an opportunity to offer new – and hopefully profitable – post-sales services.
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