Q+A: How to select an industrial enclosure

Jody Kinney, product manager at AutomationDirect, sits down to walk us through the essentials of choosing an industrial enclosure.

By David Miller March 7, 2023

Enclosure Insights

  • Increasingly, enclosures designs are becoming smaller and more decentralized to accommodate the proliferation of automated devices, as well as circuit boards and other computing components.
  • Operator-interface type enclosures that protect screens, pushbuttons and keyboards in simple or swing-mounted designs are becoming more popular.
  • Other growing trends include power systems that have exterior power-off safety requirements and designs that accommodate electronic cooling options and various other openings for devices and communications

Without industrial enclosures, sensitive automation components wouldn’t stand a chance in the field. Shorn of protection, they would be exposed to moisture, heat, dust and other hazardous environmental conditions. In “How to choose an industrial enclosure,” an exclusive video interview from Control Engineering, Jody Kinney, product manager at AutomationDirect, walks viewers through the ins and outs of selecting the proper enclosure.

In the interview, Kinney discusses how the expansion of automation technologies will require industry to protect ever greater numbers of vulnerable sensors and other electronics from hazardous field conditions. In addition, he highlights different types of enclosures and the applications they are best suited to.

Read the full transcript below.

David Miller: Hello, Jody. Thank you for joining us. I think it would be useful for us to start by discussing the ways in which the growth in smart manufacturing — by which I mean the use of more sophisticated electronic controls and other computing components — has increased the demand for enclosures due to the need of course to protect that equipment. Is this the case and can you talk to me a little bit more about it?

Jody Kinney: You’re right, but that’s only part of the picture. It’s not only the proliferation and the advancement of automation technology and the way it has gone, but also that there’s just more field devices and more localized controls rather than one centralized controller where you just drag every wire back in into one cabinet. It’s also just the overall fact that there’s just more things being automated, especially recently, and a lot of its driven by tightening labor markets. Manufacturers, when they have difficult times finding people to hire to work to make their widgets, they start looking for ways to automate it so they don’t have to find those people. And there’s a lot of things driving that tight labor market recently. You’ve got everything from the post-COVID tightening of the labor market when everyone’s been having a hard time hiring people. You’ve also got baby boomers leaving the job market en masse.

So, that’s tightened it up. And then I’ve even heard from one of my suppliers that  they’re having a hard time hiring people for their manufacturing floor, because their state legalized pot and they can’t find people that can pass drug tests. They still don’t want people who can’t pass a drug test, and since their state legalized marijuana, they can’t find those people. So, the math here is pretty simple. When you have more automated things being automated in general and more sophisticated automation layered on top of that, it creates more control devices and more connections for those control devices and all those add up to a lot more enclosures. So yeah, we are seeing growth, not only from the smart side of making automation smarter with more feedback, more sensors, more things, more parameters being controlled, but just more automation in general.

David Miller: And so with this increase in automation, with this increase in digital technology, is it the case that many of these new digital components also require different types of enclosures than equipment in the past may have? And can you share some more details with me on some of the enclosure features that are currently trending in this changing industry landscape?

Jody Kinney: Well, it is happening, but you have to kind of keep it in perspective when talking about these things. Is that ultimately an enclosure is just a box. So, it’s not like there’s a lot of great new innovations in enclosures coming out. There are more specialized ones, but what is happening is we still see the big cabinets, but you’re seeing a lot more growth in the smaller, more specialized enclosures that may go on to a single robot or some single component. As everything becomes more decentralized, you get a lot more smaller enclosures. And then when you get into smaller enclosures and a lot more of them, you want them a lot more inexpensive. So, you get into a lot more plastic ones than metal ones. It’s easy to make things small out of plastic. Sometimes it can actually be hard to make a small box out of metal. So, we’re seeing a lot of growth and a big shift toward small non-metallics.

And then there are some specialty ones within that, that like I said, for circuits, just hold a single circuit board or just hold a single sensor. But like I said, those are niche kind of things, and you’ve got to keep it in perspective. They’re still just a rectangular box and they still do the same thing. And ultimately it’s like I said, it’s a box to isolate something from the outside world. And that part hasn’t really changed. And they’re not making them different shapes because spheres don’t mount very well. And so they’re still just nice rectangular prism boxes. But we are seeing a shift in the balance of what’s being bought out there.

David Miller: So, it’s a pretty standardized product. An enclosure is an enclosure is an enclosure. But there are some different common types, particularly when we get into the different sorts of materials they’re made of. Talk to me more broadly about some of the most common types of enclosures out there and the different applications that are most likely to be used in.

Jody Kinney: When we talk about types, we’re really getting largely into function. It is one way to categorize these. The most basic function and really the one that’s been around the longest, is what we call just a junction box. Usually these are a very simple enclosure with no panel inside or anything. It’s just an intersection for pulling wires from some conduits coming in to conduits going out. Like I said, it may just be you just need an intermediate place to pull the wires through because it’s up too far or you need to split it, or divide the wires to route them to different places. Like I said, basically just a traffic intersection. That’s the most basic type. From there, the next thing up would be what we call just a general purpose cabinet. This is where you start mounting types of equipment in there. You typically have a subpanel or DIN rails or things to mount.

And these are your most versatile type. They may be wall mounted, or if they’re larger they might be floor mounted or freestanding. These can go from small to big depending on what kind of equipment you have in them and how much wiring you have  going through them. And then a subset of that is you have your rack cabinets or sometimes there’s racks. And this is for rack mounted equipment, which we see a lot with server rooms. Servers and sound equipment are sort of the original users of these. And its equipment comes with its own chassis. So sometimes you don’t even actually need a cabinet per se except maybe just to keep somebody from pushing the buttons on it. What’s the most important is the vertical racks that these screw into and you build those up. So that’s a subset there. Another subset there, an area that’s grown for us recently are your sanitary or a hygienic enclosures.

And these would be used mostly in food applications as more and more food preparation type industries become more and more automated, especially ones dealing with meat and dairy and those type of things. Making potato chips has been automated for a while, but you don’t need quite the same level of sophistication there as you do automating a chicken processing plant nor do you need the same level of wash down. And so as those food areas become more and more automated, we’ll need more and more enclosures for those. And so you have your sanitary or hygienic enclosures that can be washed clean. They’re constructed in such a way that they don’t have any surfaces that will collect water. They also don’t have paint that can chip off. They have special gaskets that if the gasket starts to deteriorate, the gaskets are bright blue because no food is naturally that color. And so you can see if there’s contamination.

Another subset that has a little bit of specialty area, another group of enclosures are what we refer to as operator-interface type enclosures. And these are the ones where you have someone that’s operating the machine that needs to be able to both receive feedback from the machine and give it commands. So, you’ll have touch screens and push buttons mounted on those keyboards, whatever you’re using for the human to communicate with the machine.

These come in a variety of either standalone consoles or pedals to mounted consulates, pendant mounted, or small enclosures that can be swung into place and moved around.

Another type you have is for power systems. With these, you have to have disconnects because you have to be able to shut the power off. And that’s a specialty type of enclosure. So, you have a disconnect handle on the outside so you don’t have to open up the cabinet because you want to be able to de-energize it before you open the cabinet. Not only from a convenience standpoint but from a standpoint of preventing arc flash and those kinds of things. And then we talked about the proliferation of smaller and smaller enclosures.

I loosely call this group mini-cases, and they’re just a little small, usually plastic or cast aluminum boxes that fit in the palm of your hand. They can be mounted just about anywhere. They hold just a few devices, or can be used as a small junction box. These are very versatile and very inexpensive. As automation becomes more decentralized and smarter, you’ll see more and more of these being used. You can’t put a big wall enclosure on a small robot, but you do need these types of things. And of course, like I said, there’s all kinds of specialized enclosures, like I said, just for holding a single circuit board or a single sensor of some type just to mount and protect those kinds of things. But from a functional standpoint, that kind of covers the spectrum of the enclosure world.

David Miller: Are you seeing an increased demand for more customized enclosures as well? For instance, specific cutouts for wires, antenna and other purposes? Could you speak to that a little bit more?

Jody Kinney: Well, we are not seeing it directly because right now we don’t have a program in place. Currently, we’re working on one to actually address that ourselves. We are working on one because yes, that is something that is more and more in demand in the marketplace and it’s very much from the fact that there’s more different kinds of things to be mounted on there. It’s simply a fact that every enclosure winds up being closed, and with few exceptions, practically every enclosure has to have some hole cut in it somewhere. It’s got to have one way for the wires to go in or the wires to go out or whatever. But especially when you get into any kind of rectangular holes and between touchscreen type devices or any kind of larger rectangular devices.

Even on larger enclosures that have to have that and which generate a lot of heat and have to be cold, mounting fans and air conditioners on those rectangular holes are much more difficult. Punching a round hole for a conduit or even a push button or anything like that is fairly simple. Cutting square or cutting rectangular holes is hard, and the larger the enclosure, the harder is to do that. So, we are seeing more demand on that. We’re working, and I know from talking to my suppliers, that’s something they push to get their capabilities for that out there because it is in demand. The end users of the enclosures don’t want to spend the time cutting those holes if they don’t have to. They would rather have it show up with the holes in it.

For those of us who have ever tried to mount an air conditioner on the side of a large freestanding enclosure, we know you’re having to cut fairly significantly sized holes in those things in sheet metal. The only way to do it in the field, basically is lay the thing down on its side with a jigsaw and it will rattle your teeth out when you’re trying to do that. It is not a pleasant part of any anyone’s day to do that even once. And so the bigger the hole you’ve got to cut, the worse it is. As that is something that the enclosure industry in general has worked to address and the manufacturing capability is out there. Now it’s just a matter of bringing it to the masses. Scaling it, and making it economical where the manufacturers can charge and it’s not a cost prohibitive amount. They don’t have to charge a cost prohibitive amount to the end-users in order to do that. And that’s what a lot of the industry is working toward.

David Miller: I see. And could you potentially talk to me in a little bit more detail about the advances that are allowing that to be scaled, so that the design and manufacturing process for those customized enclosures can be more easily carried out and delivered to end-users?

Jody Kinney: There’s a couple of avenues that happens in. There’s two basic ways for a manufacturer to deliver a customized enclosure with customized holes in it. The first way is pulling a completed stock enclosure off the shelf and cutting holes in it. And I know of really the two largest enclosure manufacturers in the world, both have developed specialized machines. They are basically customized CNC machines for doing exactly that. And they actually sell them to distributors and even other manufacturers, so that’s that avenue. So rather than having a person having to hand cut all these things and lay them out, they can mount these enclosures on this machine and program it to cut holes in completed enclosures, right? The second way to get those in there takes a little longer to deliver, and it’s to actually cut the holes in the flat sheet before you bend it and weld it into an enclosure.

So, the ones that don’t have the ability to cut the boxes after they’re made, that’s the direction they go. That’s something that is fairly simple for them to do. It’s just a matter of tightening up their manufacturing processes and their schedules to be able to insert those into their production schedule. That includes all the planning that has to be done for the extra cutting and finding a way to route them through quickly and efficiently. That’s more of a manufacturing engineering  problem for them as far as shortening the cycle time that it takes for them to go from when the customer submits a design to getting it into the production queue and getting the enclosure all the way through the production queue from a flat sheet, to a sheet with holes cut in it, to several sheets bent up into an enclosure, to welded together with a painted door put on it.