Control panel before and after: Gain productivity with lean automation, connectivity

Get wired for efficiency. This video, photos, and text explain how a cabling system can speed control panel design and construction, with build-time control panel assembly savings of 60% or more.

By Mark T. Hoske August 14, 2013

Machinery original equipment manufacturers, panel builders, and others can more easily see the productivity, reliability, and economic advantages of using a smart-module-type device-level wiring system when compared to a conventionally wired control panel.

In an interview with CFE Media, Richard Chung, Eaton product manager for lean automation, explained how to streamline control panel design to produce overall savings of 35% and build time savings of 60% or more. Below, Chung discusses traditional design control and electrical panel design and lean automation design, along with advantages beyond the obvious wiring savings.

Traditional control panel

Before: On the left in the first photo and beginning of the video is a composite control panel design using standard electromechanical controls, with multiple pushbuttons and an operator interface on the door of the controls enclosure. (Enclosures here have clear covers for display purposes.) Inside the panel are basic motor starters and motor protectors, wired to contactors. On the top is a programmable logic controller (PLC) and I/O modules hardwired to the components on the door. While this demo panel packs in what typically would be in a larger panel, it does illustrate, in close proximity, the effort required to strip, route, connect, add wire markers, and bundle and secure all wiring and cabling so it’s neat and orderly. It takes a lot of time and can result in additional challenges with loose terminations or wire connections. An original equipment manufacturer or panel builder would check the wiring using a schematic diagram, yellow-lining the paper during the process to show what had been wired, for a thorough check.

Lean control panel

After: On the right of the first image and video is a lean solutions control panel using a lean connectivity system with a multi-conductor flat cable connection, which consolidates eight wires for smarter and faster wiring. A smart chip is embedded in each of the control components shown—contactor modules and pilot device modules (pushbuttons)—so they can communicate in distributed fashion with the main controller. Benefits include space savings through elimination of the traditional PLC, I/O modules, and associated wire channels. PLC functionality has been combined into the hardware of the operator interface, running a Microsoft Windows CE real-time operating system, with CoDeSys software runtime engine for the PLC code and visualization. The software, offered by more than 200 suppliers, eliminates the need to change PLC application programming. It uses IEC 61131-3 languages.

The flat cable plugs into the back of the HMI-PLC unit, eliminating another piece of hardware typically required, a gateway or communication card. It connects serially to all devices in the control panel using a snap-in connector for each. By simplifying and standardizing the way components are connected inside the control panel, the system reduces overall control panel size, eliminates hardwiring to remote I/O modules inside cabinet, and streamlines diagnostics and other communications outside the cabinet.

Beyond a footprint reduction, the system also can add functionality to an existing enclosure, such as when a retrofit application needs to add PLC- and operator-interface functionality, but there isn’t space with traditional design methods. Those changes can be made to an existing box with minimal changes to the existing design using lean automation.

Machinery original equipment manufacturers (MOEMs) and their customers also seek more remote troubleshooting functionality, which this enables, with web server capability on the controller and easy connection via Ethernet to the Internet. Such a connection allows (with appropriate security clearance) remote diagnostics—the ability to troubleshoot an outage or other malfunction remotely. In this way, repairs may be done in minutes, compared to many hours if an off-site MOEM technician needs to visit.

Wiring, space, diagnostics, productivity

Savings: Typical before-to-after savings is 35% overall, with build-time savings upwards of 60% or more, depending on the mix and configuration of the control panel. It avoids individual wire cutting, stripping, wiring identification, and the need for applying wire ferrules. Upon connection, the system locates any faults, though the flat-wire connection system helps to avoid errors.

Beyond faster time to operation, the system also can deliver more information about motor loads and other connected systems to streamline maintenance, perhaps avoiding typical scheduled technician visits in favor of remote monitoring. It can tap into the electronics of the motor starter, monitoring motor current, for instance. When settings are changed or thresholds are crossed, the results can be seen online, if needed.

Online diagnostics can reduce risk by eliminating the need to visit or open enclosures where personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed, even allowing remote reset capability after a trip condition. In an overload situation, the contactor can open, disconnecting the load before the circuit breaker can trip, so a remote restart is possible, without a personal visit or suiting up with PPE to open an enclosure.

Road show education

A multi-city U.S. Eaton road show has been detailing the advantages of lean automation, integrated modular components, use of CoDeSys, integrated HMI-PLCs for visualization, simpler integrated safety designs, web-enabled machines, diagnostics, energy awareness, and energy efficiency. The information above was gathered during a pre-event interview in July at the Eaton Innovation Center in Menomonee Falls, Wis.  

– Mark T. Hoske is content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer,


Panel building: Optimizing control panel design, construction – This article provides additional details and justification.

Time, material savings mean cost savings – This article includes tables with time and material examples.

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.