3 Ways New Technologies are Helping Simplify Control Panel Design
January 2019 | By Brian Schmalberger
Brian Schmalberger is an OEM segment market leader for ABB.
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Designing control panel systems that offer better efficiency, protection and performance is a difficult job – often made easier with new technologies that offer engineers simpler ways to solve complex problems. Many of these new approaches rely on:
- Reducing the number and size of integral components by consolidating multiple functions;
- Harnessing the flexibility of modular designs;
- Incorporating new monitoring and communications capabilities to improve performance and efficiency.
Incorporating Multiple Functions into Consolidated Control and Electrical Panels
Designing control panels – whether standalone or integrated into machine equipment – requires balancing the often-conflicting requirements for compact space, higher capacity and expanded functionality. Like a smart “phone” that also includes a camera, MP3 player and GPS, today’s control panels and protection devices often consolidate the features and functions of multiple functional components into one or more integrated devices.
For example, recent advances in contactor design incorporate previously external components, such as surge suppressors into a single unit. These integration advances reduce overall space requirements, while also simplifying the need for additional installation of parts, wiring and labor.
Newer soft starters have integrated by-pass technology, eliminating the cost and size of a dedicated contactor, and the added benefit of improved heat dissipation. And contactors themselves can be fitted with thermal overload relays mounted directly to the contactor, again integrating additional functionality for individual components.
Circuit breaker trip units with advanced functionality now incorporate many components that are typically found external to the breaker, resulting in a reduction in wiring, additional parts, and installation time.
Such consolidation of features and functionality points to an overall reduction in cost, size and installation time, as well as the simplification of both the design and specification of control panels.
Modular Control Components Simplify Specification and Design
The advent of new modular and pluggable components offer electrical and control panel designers new flexibility to configure systems as needed for various work settings and applications. Pre-assembled control panels can be restricting as all system elements, from enclosures to individual components (such as circuit breakers and power management devices) must be specified early in the design process. This scenario can complicate final design and installation as requirements often change. On-site physical constraints can also alter design and installation conditions.
Some control panel components feature flexible configurable systems from the exterior dimensions of the enclosure, to internal elements. For example, adjustable bus bars allow for either top or bottom connections. Recent “click-in” and “pluggable” component designs, from easy-to-assemble low-voltage distribution boards to pluggable components such as soft starters, trip units and other circuit breaker accessories, simplify both specification and ordering processes, and can also make final installation faster.
“Intelligent” Power Simplifies Monitoring and Maintenance
One path toward simplifying control panel design and maintenance is the emergence of built-in communications capabilities in power components, which allows the user to review and track energy usage and conditions monitoring.
A new generation of trip units, for example, are now fitted with micro USB ports that can be used to communicate performance data for early diagnostics or maintenance – as well as making the initial set-up easier.
These new communications features give operations teams new levels of visibility into the electrical system that create new operational efficiencies, such as proactive maintenance planning.
Continuing pressures for control panel designs to do more with less – higher performance and functionality in less space with less cost – will continue to drive “simpler” approaches to complex design challenges and innovations in low-voltage control components.