Control Panel Build More Efficient In-House

Aug. 29, 2012
Companies Contemplating Bringing Control Panel Fabrication In-House Must Make Sure It Has Correct Suppliers, Partners
About the Author
Thomas Conrad is vice president of Wynright Control Solutions in Erlanger, Ky.A couple of years ago, we decided to begin fabricating all of our control panels in-house. This decision was not made lightly. We had worked with many excellent panel fabricators over the years, but as a turnkey provider of conveyor and sortation systems for some of the world's leading companies, we believed it was in our customers' best interests to take control of more of the integration process.

By building our own panels, we believed we would have greater flexibility in the design process as well as throughout the lifecycle of our customers' conveyor and sortation projects. As any industrial integrator knows, projects are hardly ever executed as first proposed. In our business, a lot of things change along the implementation timeline that affect the dynamics of a control system and how the system functions.

Our projects can range from small warehouse or distribution center retrofits that require a two- to three-week turnaround for control panels, to large-scale implementations that could take up to 18 months and require dozens of control panels. In a typical design, drawings must be engineered and double-checked, then sent to the panel shop, where parts have to be ordered. Then, and only then, do the panels get built. This all adds time when you're working with an outside shop.

In addition, the typical panel shop is not solely focused on our customers. Successful panel shops must be able to work with multiple clients to grow their businesses, which means that their knowledge of our customer's specific requirements might not be as deep as an internal shop focused just on our customers. The benefits of having the institutional knowledge of previous projects designed, developed and fabricated in-house presented a great opportunity for Wynright to accelerate and enhance our customers' projects.

But this is not an approach that works well for everyone. Until we brought our control panel fabrication in-house, we worked with some very tremendous and responsive panel fabricators. For most industrial design companies, they work just fine. So we knew when we set out on this path that our goal was not only to replicate, but improve on those services.

Before buying our first piece of equipment for the shop, we knew that we needed to address the human element. The shop head for an internal control panel shop has to be able to coordinate all the different aspects of the panel build, but also directly interact with the project engineers. The wiring technicians also needed to have critical thinking skills. It would not be enough to hire low-skilled labor that only knew how to wire panels; they would need to know how to correctly route wires, set up and work with various control devices, and preload programs into the panel to make the controls functional and well-organized.

Next, we focused on quality. With the quick turnaround time on our projects, the onsite engineers must be able to trust the panel shop to address the minor details. So we decided to not wait until the panel was delivered to the field to ensure quality. We set up quality checks in the panel shop to ensure the wiring standards were being followed in order to save us site installation time.

To ensure the level of quality that we were seeking from our internal panel shop, we also work directly with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) throughout the life of the project to get feedback to our engineers more quickly about wiring standards and the designs that are being implemented. In addition, as a partner in Rockwell Automation's OEM Program for Machine and Equipment Builders, we are able to quickly acquire parts and products we need for our panel builds. This enables us to design and manufacture custom panels quickly using state-of-the-art components alongside state-of-the-art design techniques on everything ranging from small pushbutton enclosures to large motor control panels.

Our Rockwell partnership is critical to the success of our internal control panel shop. Any company contemplating bringing control panel fabrication in-house has to make sure it has the right suppliers and partners in place. These key suppliers and partners need to bring added industry expertise that will allow them to provide the best customized solution and also be flexible to the needs of an ever-changing integration plan. There are disruptions not only in a project design, but also in today's global supply chains, so it is imperative to have trusted partners who can turn things around in a timely fashion.

Our control panel fabrication shop still isn't at a point where it is expected to be independently profitable, although we have been able to achieve significant cost savings for our customers by bringing this business in-house. It enables us to improve and enhance our processes, so we can more quickly and effectively implement intelligent material handling design solutions in the warehouses and distribution industry for our customers. This helps our customers look to Wynright as a long-term partner and increase efficiency by design.