Control panels for factory automation have been evolving rapidly in recent years into two layers of functionality. The first, in stainless steel cabinets, contains the electronic controls of heavy duty and high-voltage mechanical systems. As facilities move towards Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) infrastructure, another layer — one to measure and monitor the finer details of process — has emerged, connecting digital sensors on the edge to analytics on the cloud.
For example, a bottling operation may now employ edge devices such as cameras and real-time image recognition for precision alignment of labeling and fittings. Artificial intelligence (AI) systems on the cloud might coordinate machine actions to keep the flow of product running at optimal rates.
One infrastructure is no more important than the other. Sensors that fail to connect may distort the data collected, throwing off the rhythm of regulation. Both layers are now essential for the entire automation to run as intended.
Designers of control panels for automated systems must find new ways to conceptualize user interfaces (UIs) to integrate all important functions, while also maintaining all the qualities needed for durability in an industrial environment, such as ingress protection, light indicator visibility, and rugged exterior design.
Engineers tasked with control panels for operational technology (OT) often encounter challenges along four major themes:
- Integration — Controls and indicators of both layers to monitor system status. While edge device data is typically sent to the cloud and their aggregation viewed on monitors and tablets, the general operating status of these devices still needs to be monitored locally. For edge devices, indicators display connectivity and transmission of data to the cloud.
- More data points — Higher resolution of data attributes in the process from more sensors and feedback means more control options at interfaces. Additional design effort is needed to create logical groupings of these elements on the control panel as well as to manage limited space, whether for components on circuit boards or for cabling inside cabinets.
- Change over time — Because of the increasing capabilities of IIoT networks and the push in many sectors towards an Industry 4.0 framework, there is a high likelihood that control panel configurations will grow in complexity and need updating after a few years.
- Extra durability — As with legacy factory panels, new IIoT infrastructure needs to be resistant to all the accidents and hazards that can occur in a factory environment, such as vibrations, liquid spills, and airborne particles.
Recent Developments in Automation Control Panels
To rise to these challenges, a few developments have emerged to aid automation design with respect to UI for industrial controls, digital factories, and intelligent buildings.
- Modularity — To match the increase in data points and changes to factory configurations over time, attempts to design modularity into control panels are underway. Global technology giant Siemens have developed SIRIUS, with interchangeable modular electronics and 3D-printable surfaces.
- Software-Aided Mapping — Due to the complexity of electronic networks and their rapid evolution in factory settings, conceptual maps of automation schemes can now be visualized in specialty software applications, such as EcoStruxure Power Monitoring. These new tools permit engineers to keep track of Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), Programmable Automation Controllers (PACs), and sensor devices, as well as major elements of assembly lines in schematics and rearrange their controls and indicators in a virtual UI according to best user experience (UX) factors. The final plan for the interface surface can then be fabricated through CAM.
- Hardware Improvements — Certain components frequently used in control panels have undergone major innovation to address the engineering challenges highlighted above. Light pipes developed by Bivar, for example, provide vast improvements to indicator lights over direct-mounted LEDs on the surface of interfaces, with more reliable attachment and design flexibility both on the UI and inside the cabinet.
Bivar’s Contribution to Industrial Automation
Bivar is the originator of ZeroLightBleed™ technology, which has effectively solved the problem of LED light interference for premium electronics. The company also recognizes the new requirements Industry 4.0 is generating in factory automation. Bivar’s product lines of light pipes and lenses satisfy these new engineering needs in four ways:
- Durable attachment –– Whether in heavy-duty legacy control panels for large equipment or for newer IIoT edge devices, Bivar light pipes have become the best practice for secure attachment of light indicators between the PCB and the UI surface, resilient to the forces of vibration and impact, and IP67 certified against dirt and water egress.
- Optimal legibility — Factory environments may have ambient obstructions and managers may have to monitor equipment at a distance or from various vantage points. Light pipes conserve the intensity of LED emissions for maximal impact and their heavy-duty accessories such as dome lenses create indictors with 360 degrees of visibility.
- Design Flexibility — The innovation behind light pipes is to remove the constraints for PCBs to be placed inside cabinets or casings by the location of LEDs on the interface. PCBs and other components can be positioned for best use of limited space, access, and secure attachment, while maintaining the desired layout of the UI.
- Modularity for light indicators — Bivar has gone one step further to help the designers of automated interfaces by the invention of a modular light pipe system. Not only does Bivar’s Modular Light Pipe System (MLPS) give product developers easier and more cost-effective light pipes according to specifications, but it also makes design updates with additions of new indicators simple to accomplish.
Industrial automation control panels have increasingly integrated IIoT capabilities and Industry 4.0 technologies. Meanwhile, user experience design strives to present a clear and unambiguous language of machine operability.
The result has been new engineering solutions for control panels with more modular and scalable features, allowing for easier customization, as well as smart innovations like light pipes to more easily integrate more data points into industrial controls. All these developments are contributing to rapid deployment and adaptation to the needs of the agile factory.
Modularity — SIRIUS, with interchangeable modular electronics and 3D-printable surfaces: SIRIUS - Industrial controls - Global (siemens.com)
Software-Aided Mapping — EcoStruxure Power Monitoring, conceptual maps of automation schemes: EcoStruxure Power Monitoring Expert | Schneider Electric USA (se.com)