The Trend Is Change
By Evan Coulter
Change is great, right?
Some of us love change and others loathe it. But if you’re in the panel business, you’ll see plenty of change over the years. I certainly have.
When I first started at UCEC 18 years ago, relay logic was on its way out. I made plenty of panels with stacks of relays inside, but the PLC was already gaining ground. The PLC was a marvel at the time: it did the work more efficiently and in a smaller package.
Some of the older engineers at the time didn’t trust PLCs, so they would use relays and PLCs. These engineers just didn’t trust new tech...even the sparkling new Allen Bradley PLC 5. And of course we’ve watched the PLC get smaller so that it’s now a quarter of the size but can do four times as much. It’s a proven technology.
How panels communicate with one another has significantly changed a lot over the years. There are many protocols around... DH+, DeviceNet, ControlNet, Modbus, Profibus, TCP/IP. A lot of the things we see have gone Ethernet, which gives a nice, clean installation and the engineers seem to have it figured out. We’re starting to see a lot of wireless communications such as radio, wifi and satellite. Wireless communications are on the rise, because It’s often not cost-effective to run cables if there is a large distance between installations.
For instance, let’s assume a ten-mile distance between gas pipeline control stations. If you have to run cables for those ten miles, that’s a huge cost. But if we communicate with radios or even satellite, there’s much less upkeep cost involved.
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The factory floor looks a lot different now as well. One of our clients, an international beverage maker, used to have us build large HMI touchscreens on the panels. When the maintenance workers needed to adjust something on the line, they would walk over to the panel and punch in their info. Now, the workers communicate wirelessly with the panels via a tablet they carry around. There’s no more walking back and forth to each individual panel.
I think it’s fun to see things change, although I understand why some people shy away from it. There’s also a tendency for some to embrace every new and shiny thing, so we have to temper the excitement of new tech with research and a careful consideration of the benefits and drawbacks. I do know that the engineers we meet are getting younger each year (while I don’t age at all!), so it’s clear that these new engineers will usher in a new level of technology. We’re ready; bring it on!
Evan is Vice President of Business Operations at UCEC.