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Panel building 4.0?

19 October 2017

The availability of end-to-end data is the key to productivity in any automated process. Andy Pye visited the German HQ of Rittal in Herborn to see the latest thinking in the automation of control panel building and enclosure manufacture

Rittal is a leading global provider of industrial enclosures, power distribution systems, climate control and IT infrastructure, as well as software and services. Such systems are deployed across a variety of industrial and IT sectors.

For control panel builders, CNC machining centres are light years ahead of the alternative, manual approach when it comes to productivity and efficiency. The Rittal Perforex CNC machining centre is geared for switchgear manufacturing. It is ideal for automated production of bore holes, cut-outs and threads in mounting plates, enclosure doors and side panels. According to Rittal, machining centres speed up processing by as much as 66%, compared to the traditional hand-tooled method. A web-based Return on Investment (ROI) Calculator is available to help accurately gauge how quickly a Perforex will take to pay for itself.

All the mechanical processing steps in the preparation of enclosures for population – including drilling, thread cutting, and milling of cut-outs – which are so time-consuming, cost-intensive, and error prone - can be accomplished in a single work step. Moreover, an automatic tool changer allows multiple tasks to be performed in a single operation, without the need for human intervention. It is suitable with all machinable materials, such as steel, stainless steel, aluminium, copper and plastic.

an automatic tool changer allows multiple tasks to be performed in a single operation

Programming a job into the machining centre takes just minutes, and is either carried out in the workshop or by using imported CAD data from Rittal’s Eplan Pro Panel software or via DXF imports from any other CAD platforms. Any program setting can be saved for future, identical jobs. Eplan Pro Panel is a tool for 3D design of control cabinets, switchgear and flexible flow dividing systems. Numerous leading component manufacturers provide onlime access to their commercial and technical data and corresponding graphics in a standardised format.

Any retrospective modification or extensions may be implemented directly in the Perforex workshop programming system. Data transfer directly back to EPLAN Pro Panel for future use is also supported.

The Peterborough-based panel builder Pneumatechnique are one company which has looked at ways to improve efficiency and offer better production consistency. One of the main issues the company faces is the underemployment of its skilled labour force.

“There is no advantage in employing a highly qualified workforce to do basic tasks like drilling holes, which is what was happening,” says MD Jim Venters. Now, to undertake this repetitive work, the company has opted for the Rittal Automation Perforex CNC machine.

“The Perforex System has improved the quality, consistency and speed of our output," says production manager Adam Wilson, whose team expects its new machining system to pay for itself in just 12 months. "A project that was taking four hours can now be completed in just 20 minutes and with a better finish. Quality and consistency is guaranteed and a batch is always the same. Specials and one-offs can now be delivered as standard, and we can now do it all in-house in one operation."

Also on show in Herborn, as a more sophisticated option, the Perforex LC 3D laser machining centre can machine stainless steel casings and enclosures as quickly as it can machine mild steel. Fast, precise, contactless, low-vibration machining of enclosures, casings and mounting plates. Thread tapping is an additional function.

However, it is between three and four times as expensive as the standard Perforex CNC machine, and cannot work with plastic or copper.

A glimpse of the future

A further few years away is fully automated assembly of wiring cables, including connection and routing on the plate. The objective is fully automated length cutting, insulation stripping, wire-end treatment, labelling and bundling of all connecting cables. But there are some technical limitations - the prototype can currently only work with push-in connections, because screw connections come in too many variations and the unsolved challenge is to use visual recognition to recognise the positioning and placement of components.

Key Points

  • When it comes to productivity and efficiency, CNC machining centres are light years ahead of manually constructing control panels
  • The Rittal Perforex CNC machining centre carries out all mechanical processing steps for enclosure preparation in a single step
  • Any retrospective modification or extensions can be implemented directly in the Perforex workshop programming system