Article
I get that all the time when calling the bank or the credit union or any
 business these days. Once connected, a voice on the other end warns me:<br><br><i>"Please listen carefully. Our menu options have changed."</i><br><br>Most
 of the time they haven't, at least not for some time. But the reminder 
is still there, enjoining me to practice careful listening.

Control Panels – Your Menu Options Have Changed

Steve Maurer, IME
I get that all the time when calling the bank or the credit union or any business these days. Once connected, a voice on the other end warns me:

"Please listen carefully. Our menu options have changed."

Most of the time they haven't, at least not for some time. But the reminder is still there, enjoining me to practice careful listening.

But when it comes to industrial and commercial control panels, our menu options have, indeed, changed.

One thing's for sure … these aren't your Grandpa's control panels anymore.

From analog to digital
I've built several control panels back in the day. Most of the time, they were comprised of purely analog components. Magnetic starters, control transformers, and cube relays were all tucked neatly into a metal enclosure.

The panel covers were festooned with all types of accoutrements. Analog hour meters, selector switches and push buttons, voltage/amperage meters, and incandescent indicator lights, to name a few.

Times … have certainly changed.

Of course, many of the old-school components still inhabit control panels. But in many cases, the new and improved versions prevail.

Magnetic starters are often replaced with VFDs (variable frequency drives) to provide more granular control. Motors that drive lines, belts, and other machine parts get a very precise tuning from VFDs.
Cube relays and similar components have morphed into "smart" relays and the input/output ports on PLCs. Programmable logic computers allow for changes to operation quickly, as well as closer monitoring of machine status.

Touchscreen monitors take the place of many analog meters. And since they're connected to the PLC and other components, changes are made with the touch of a virtual button.

All that, without even opening the control panel cabinet.

And then there's that connectivity thing.

The "connected" control panel
Remember log sheets? I still use them to record important data and conditions.

But the age of connectivity is upon us and more machines connect to corporate intranets and the internet through networking components in the control panel.

For example, I work with a scale system that keeps track of weights via a connected computer control panel. It keeps records for a running 30-day period. By bringing up the history, system problems can be identified, classified, and otherwise codified for troubleshooting purposes.

All that from my own computer away from the location.

Laptops can be connected to the PLC with on-door receptacles and USB or Ethernet jacks for programming and troubleshooting.

And yeah, they have menu options.

That change.

Another processing system connects directly to the corporate network so that someone in a galaxy far, far away (or at least at the corporate headquarters) can monitor progress and make adjustments to the production schedule.

That system also ultimately connects to the internet so that engineers and technicians can remote into it … from Holland!

Of course, with all this connectivity comes a new layer of safety and security issues. Now you just don't need to lockout equipment for worker safety, but also protect it from cybercrime risks.

Yep, it's not your grandpa's control panel anymore. You may still need your screwdrivers, wrenches, nut drivers, and wire stripper. Maybe even a pocketknife, in a pinch.

But there's a whole new set of tools and skills you'll need to master for working on today's digitally operated, "laser beam guided," totally connected control panel.

To infinity … and beyond!

Photo courtesy of Panduit®
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