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On the face of it, there is a stark difference between an enclosure and the concept of digitalisation. One is essentially a “simple” steel box whereas the other is the complicated operation of converting processes into vast swathes of Cloud-based data. Digitalisation has been on the tip of industry’s tongue for a while now, but not everyone quite understands how it impacts them or how to use it. Professor Friedhelm Loh, Owner and CEO of the Friedhelm Loh Group which includes Rittal, said the new Haiger plant will “be fully aligned with highly efficient Industry 4.0 principles”. Loh said: “The new manufacturing site will also safeguard future competitiveness for our customers and our own business.” The question is: how will Rittal’s monumental investments into digitalisation benefit the typical panel builder?
Rittal has been investing heavily in its digital transformation in recent years, with around 70% of the company’s product line being changed to new solutions in the last four years. At a cost of €250 million, the 24,000m2 high-tech facility incorporates fully automated manufacturing processes, 100 high-tech machines, 20 automated guided vehicles (AVGs), and 60 robotic arms. A day’s production schedule is generated the previous night by an automated, knowledge-based system that sets out orders sequentially “like an MP3 playlist”.
In the past, individual steps such as cutting to size, edging, welding and painting were transactional, sequential and independent of one another. In the new factory, all workers, machines and materials will be integrated into the manufacturing execution system. The machines and handling systems communicate with each other as well as with higher-level control systems via modern Industry 4.0-capable communication networks. Materials and components will be moved by means of 20 automated guided vehicles. Packaging, marking and transfer to the distribution centre are also performed automatically. At the end of the process, the individual assemblies are automatically merged and a QR code is applied which enables identification and assembly.
A knowledge-based “learning” system will enable predictive maintenance, preventing faults from occurring and minimising downtime. Automated order management and fulfilment will guarantee ongoing availability of standard products and accessories in the nearby global distribution centre, creating an end-to-end digital process chain, from configuration and engineering on the part of the customer to shipment of the end-product. The Haiger facility is a pilot for the real-world implementation of Industry 4.0 and will act as a role model for Rittal’s international operations.
Ultimately, the facility will enable rapid delivery and constant availability, with Rittal using 24 hours as a rule of thumb for delivery in Germany and 48 hours for elsewhere in Europe.
The benefits of digitalisation aren’t just found in production, however, with data helping to also change the way in which products are being designed. Product digitalisation has already happened with Rittal’s Blue e+ cooling units and then last year Rittal released the VX25 large enclosure system which had all the advantages of configuration systems and digital support integrated from the very beginning of the design phase. The success of digitalisation could be seen by the VX25 having an average worldwide conversion rate of 70% in just one year.
The latest product line from Rittal to undergo a digital makeover is the AX compact enclosures and KX small enclosures which were first showcased at the Hannover Fair in April. Once fully operational, the new Haiger plant will churn out around 9,000 of these enclosures per day. The rethought and redesigned AX and KX enclosures are a far cry from the first AE enclosure developed in 1961. With 30% more space, 30% less mounting time, and with 30 new features, the modernised enclosure line epitomises Rittal’s foray into the world of digitalisation.
“We have understood the new imperatives of digitalised industry and developed a new generation of compact and small enclosures in response. In conjunction with the introduction of our Blue e+ range and the VX25 large enclosure system, this means all our core products have been entirely redesigned, and are fit for Industry 4.0,” explains Uwe Scharf, Managing Director at Rittal with responsibility for the IT and Industry Business Units and Marketing.
In addition to the short delivery time, further time saving benefits are made as soon as the product is delivered. Panels can be removed individually meaning there is no need for the usual disassembly work. It is also easier to install doors and cam locks as no tools are required. The wall mounting bracket can now be quickly screwed into place from the outside of the compact or small enclosure without impacting the protection rating. This also substantially reduces the risk of damage during transit as the brackets, which protrude beyond the sides of the enclosure, can be attached on-site.
Modular designs and optimised cut-outs/sizes help make better use of the space inside the enclosure. The increasing number of sensors and actuators being deployed in the switchgear industry is, in turn, raising the quantity of cables needing to be housed. The new enclosures’ modular designs, improved cut-outs, and larger gland plates create on average a third more space for cables. In addition, integrated locators in the side panels enable simple, precise and time-saving incorporation of the interior installation rails. As the rails also make use of 25mm spacing (pitch pattern), it is possible to use accessories, such as lights or terminal blocks, from the VX25 portfolio.
KX small enclosures from 150mm x 150mm x 80mm are suitable if only a few components are to be housed in terminal boxes and bus enclosures. AX compact enclosures are available with depths between 120mm and 350mm, and in a maximum size of 1,000mm x 1,400mm. For all models, there is a choice of spray-finished sheet steel or stainless steel. Despite the greater number of potential use cases, the total number of components and accessories, and as a result complexity, has been markedly reduced.
A change in mindset
The Haiger plant shows that Industry 4.0 is no longer just a buzzword - it has become a reality. Rittal's products and factory represent the industry's changing attitude towards smart manufacturing as well as the need to adapt in the face of increasing competition. Uwe Scharf believes that the mindset of Rittal has had to change in unison with a change in mindset of customers. In the past, customers would simply ask themselves what product they needed, what was the cheapest price they could get it for, and how quickly could they get it. Today, customers are faced with greater competitiveness and are instead asking themselves how they can optimise their processes to allow them to do more in a shorter period of time than they have done in the past. Rittal is therefore no longer simply asking what product a customer wants, but instead working with customers and using Industry 4.0 principles to develop products that enable customers to become more efficient.
Digitalisation is not something you can simply buy, nor is it something which provides quick wins. Digitalisation is a long process and many companies will inevitably fail and make mistakes when attempting to adopt it. Professor Loh believes that digitalisation is not easy or cheap in the slightest. For Loh, industry has not reached the end of digitalisation and he feels that it will continue to develop and change day by day. However, by embracing digitalisation now, Rittal is attempting stay ahead of the competition and share its own efficiency gains with its panel building customers.
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