Automation and control systems are getting more complex. A good panel design takes technical complexity in stride. A great panel design also steps up the space optimization. But a best-in-class panel design accounts for how complex our interactions with control systems have become. Productivity demands timely updates to equipment, lines, and processes.
Accessing a panel isn’t a one-off kind of thing anymore. It’s something that is going to happen often enough that the impact on productivity is real, measurable, and growing. That’s where safety and productivity significantly overlap, as both a design concern and an implementation problem. Because when a panel is designed with a more realistic idea of how it will be used, it’s not only going to be safer, it’s going to contribute more to productivity.
It’s More than Mitigating Risk: It’s Future-Proofing
When you protect people, you’re also protecting productivity. That’s good, but a narrow focus on one kind of protection can miss other opportunities. We can mitigate more risks and improve productivity by thinking deeply about how equipment, people, and processes interact – and how those interactions continue to become more complex.
That’s a key idea in the philosophy of prevention-through-design or safety by design. We can help our end users achieve safer and more efficient operations. But you have to ask: how do the safety specs for this control panel affect how it will be used? We’ll explore how to answer that question in this article, and you can get a deeper dive with our expert webinar, Best Practices for Control Panel Design.
How Prevention-Through-Design Works for Control Panels
When the layperson thinks of safety, they may immediately think of personal protection: goggles and gloves, seat belts, and hazmat suits. But anyone familiar with NIOSH’s hierarchy of controls knows that in the workplace, personal protective equipment (PPE) is not the first line of defense, it’s the last. PPE is like a shield. It can stop an ax, but you’d rather not have someone swinging one at you.
The first line of defense on the hierarchy of controls is elimination, or completely removing the hazard. Completely negating the possibility of incidents is ideal, but it’s not always practical. For instance, we could demand that workers should not enter a facility where an incident is possible.
The realistic middle ground is where prevention-through-design shines. When you engineer panels to match use, users can achieve their goals while also mitigating and reducing risk to an acceptable level.
Let’s say you need to update some firmware in a control panel, or the firmware needs quick troubleshooting. To access that panel, there are clear protocols for safety and compliance. You need a qualified electrical worker to open the panel, and they need to follow a testing procedure that verifies it’s safety. More than likely, the person updating the firmware is an IT or control expert, rather than the qualified electrical worker needed to open the panel. This is a two-person job that requires planning and coordination and a clear testing procedure.
How can we increase efficiency? We could cross-train the IT expert as a qualified electrical worker. But that makes it a one-person job with double the workload. The IT expert must go through the safety and testing procedure before they can get to the real issue, which is the firmware.
What if you could access the firmware in the panel without opening the door?Installing a port on the panel that does just that. Now we’ve prevented the safety issue with our design choice, and we’ve also made the process of updating and troubleshooting the firmware more efficient.
Serving the Big Needs With the Three Big Questions
Panel design specs serve clear and critical needs. Optimizing space is usually necessary because of design limitations in the facility itself. There’s probably also a clear need to future-proof the design by leaving room for additions and expansions. We’ll have some compliance needs (such as the rating of any wiring or network cables), and we’ll have some clear engineering challenges (such as negating signal interference).
If you’ve built a panel before, you’re probably already thinking about some next-level problems. Like a standard layout to keep things organized for users to easily maintain, inspect, or troubleshoot - that’s the direction we want to take.
To inform our prevention-through-design process, we need to make sure we’ve asked three big questions:
- What tasks will demand interaction with this panel?
- Who needs to interact with this panel to complete those tasks?
- How often will each task occur?
If a panel is installed and only opened for a yearly inspection, then those questions are easy to answer, and the design impact minimal. But that’s probably not the world we’re designing for - the answers can get pretty granular. There is the operator who will interface with the panel daily and the control or network engineer who may have to update or validate programming. There are also maintenance personnel who will periodically inspect the panel and perform preventive maintenance. Additionally, there’s the equipment the panel controls, which will also have inspection and maintenance cycles.
When something goes wrong on the line, the panel may need to be part of the troubleshooting process. The equipment in question may be reconfigured to meet changing production goals or updates in the works over the next few years. We may also need to avoid the cost of replacing the panel if an upgrade should suddenly be required. Planning for safety protocols during the design phase will make the operation and maintenance of the panel safer and more efficient in the future.
Back to a Real-World Example
Let’s refer back to our firmware update example. Maybe that panel is on an oil rig and is optimized for space. It could be pretty tight in there, with line side guards and finger-safe terminals, and it’s not an easy panel to verify safely with a hand-held voltage tester. Maybe there’s no easy option for thermal testing, with likely hot spots behind barriers. A qualified professional knows what to do, of course, but we haven’t made it easy on them.
If the panel can remain closed during the firmware update, we’ve engineered a safer solution that’s more productive. The access port on the outside of the panel makes that possible, but we may still want to verify that the panel is de-energized. Maybe it’s protocol not to update the firmware without ensuring the panel is off.
What if you could verify the panel is de-energized without opening it? The absence of voltage tester with a user interface on the exterior of the panel could do that without opening the panel. We’ve added a level of safety to our firmware update without having to bring back our qualified person.
That absence of voltage tester also adds a layer of safety for the qualified person when opening the panel. Showing the voltage status inside the panel before it's opened is a powerful tool that helps the electrician work safely.
An Impassioned Plea for the Not-So-Little Things
Complexity is everywhere, and as we hinted above, the need to access and work on a control panel is only going to involve more roles and tasks. As panels are updated and changed, having clear, safe layouts with appropriate labels means that everyone can open a control panel without having to worry that they aren’t missing a key detail.
Planning for the long-term, right down to abrasion-resistant connectors and proper shielding able to stand up to multiple upgrades, cleanings, and inspections – those choices can end up making technicians and employees jobs easier and safer.
Future-Proofing the Past
We’ve focused on applying prevention-through-design to a new control panel, but that doesn’t mean the concept can’t be applied to current installations. It can be more efficient to pair your safety or productivity upgrade with the next necessary production upgrade. It may be worth getting ahead of those needs now with an engineered safety and productivity solution.
It’s one thing to engineer a panel that meets the specs and optimizes space. It’s another to have the tools to implement Prevention Through Design when your client needs your expertise. To dig deeper into this topic, you can hear more in our webinar, Best Practices for Control Panel Design.