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Making money out of panel building isn’t easy, so it’s perfectly understandable that panel builders are always looking for economies. But economies can sometimes turn out to be surprisingly expensive. To see how this can happen, let’s start by looking at tools. It’s tempting to stick with only the most basic tools that will get the job done: simple crimp tools and wire strippers, for example, along with plain ordinary screwdrivers.
Such tools are, without doubt, inexpensive to buy and they’re great for occasional use on site, but are they the best choice in the panel builder’s factory where, each month, there are probably thousands if not tens of thousands of wire ends to be stripped and terminated, and an even greater number of screws to be tightened?
To answer this, the first thing to consider is the time these everyday tasks take. Stripping and crimping a wire end with basic tools doesn’t take long, it’s true, but it’s equally true that an automatic wire stripper and a crimping tool with lever action and a ratchet mechanism – both still relatively inexpensive hand-operated tools – will save a useful amount of time for each wire end. With over tens of thousands of wire ends, those time savings add up to a useful gain in productivity. The same is true of screw tightening, where a power screwdriver is the key to savings.
The best crimping tools for wire-end ferrules even feed the ferrules automatically, which saves even more time and trouble, while stripping tools are now available that adjust themselves to suit a range of cable sizes with no need for any user intervention.
When selecting tools, however, it’s not just the time savings that have to be considered – quality and consistency of results are just as important. Basic wire strippers are cheap, but when they’re used on stranded conductors it’s all too easy to cut one or more of the strands, which reduces the current carrying capacity of the cable, possibly leading to a hotspot and premature failure. A more sophisticated stripping tool eliminates these problems and also demands less skill on the part of the user.
The story is similar with crimp tools, where it’s difficult with basic tools to produce 100% consistent crimps. A well-designed ratchet tool, on the other hand, will not release until the optimum crimping pressure is reached, which virtually eliminates the risk of poor crimping and subsequent failure.
When it comes to screwdrivers, one of the most common applications is tightening the screws in terminals of one kind or another. That sounds simple, but it’s not. If the screw is insufficiently tightened, the connection may overheat and fail. If it’s over-tightened, however, the screw thread may strip, again leading to an early failure. A powered screwdriver – electrically or pneumatically operated – is the solution, as it will deliver the same pre-set tightening torque every time. A bonus is that there’s also much less operator fatigue and the risk of repetitive strain injury is virtually eliminated.
Clearly, investing in hand tools that are optimised for use in the panel building environment can lead to big productivity gains and other invaluable benefits, but is there more that panel builders can do to work smarter? The answer is emphatically, yes. Automatic machines are now affordable for all but the smallest of panel builders and there’s no doubt that they deliver time and cost savings.
Wire cutting machines will, for example, take a roll of wire and cut it into pre-set lengths, using data sourced direct from a CAE package or even a simple spreadsheet. This not only saves time, but also greatly reduces the wastage of costly wire, as each piece is cut to the precise length needed.
Complementing the cutting machines are automated stripping machines that will remove exactly the right length of insulation from each wire end and, if required, will even partially strip ends. A further option is the strip-and-crimp machine which, as its name suggests, not only strips the wire ends but also adds and crimps a wire-end ferrule, all at a rate that’s around seven or eight times faster than could be achieved by even the best of workers.
And it’s not only with wire preparation that automated machinery can help. An area of panel building that can be overlooked is marking and labelling, yet these apparently straightforward tasks can absorb plenty of time. An effective way to address this issue is with a dedicated printing system, especially if this is used in conjunction with modern CAE software that can supply data direct to the printer.
The best printers for panel building applications are fast in operation – some can print up to six labels per second – they feature driver-free plug-and-play functionality, and they can print on a variety of media, from cable and terminal markers to component labels.
Once again, time savings are an obvious benefit, but durable easy-to-read labels and markers that are guaranteed to carry the correct legends are another lasting benefit. It is also worth remembering that automatic printing direct from design data means that no labels will ever be forgotten or overlooked, which can be a significant advantage when, for example, a kit of parts is put together for installation on site.
While considering markers, another point worth noting is that these are now available in detectable versions. These have a small ferrous content and are also x-ray opaque so that they can easily be sensed by the detection equipment used in the food industry to guard against product contamination. Detectable cable ties with similar characteristics are also available. While these products may not directly contribute to productivity and efficiency, they can significantly help with end-user satisfaction which many would say is priceless!
As we’ve seen, choosing the right workplace solutions, and particularly considering recent developments in the field, will allow panel builders to make big gains in productivity and profitability. It can, however, take time and effort, which busy panel builders can ill afford, to find and evaluate appropriate solutions. Fortunately, there is a convenient answer to this conundrum: simply talk to a company that has an in-depth understanding of the panel building industry and offers a wide range of proven solutions that have been developed specifically for this industry.
Weidmüller is such a company and will be pleased to demonstrate to panel builders of all sizes that, no matter how sceptical they may initially be, it really is possible to work smarter, not harder thereby boosting both productivity and that all-important profitability.
About the author:
Daryl Cowlan joined Weidmüller in early 2018 as the UK Technical Sales Specialist for Printer Systems, Markers and Tools. Starting his career as an Avionic Technician in the Royal Air Force, Daryl has also worked as Area Sales Manager for the Wago Corporation and Sales Manager for Parkinson Harness Technology Ltd.
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