How to Pick Automation Panel Builders: Warehousing & Material Handling

Automation-panel-builders_high-level-warehouse-rackThe automation, warehousing, and material handling industries rely on control panels as much as anyone. 

Their electronic systems must operate machinery, conveyors, and other automated equipment with razor-sharp accuracy. Control panels serve as the nerve center. They house the programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMIs), variable frequency drives (VFDs), and an alphabet soup full of other components.

The integrated setup should spell out reliable control and monitoring. Often this requires the expertise of a dedicated, third-party automation panel builder. Choosing a control panel vendor can have a significant impact on:

  • Efficiency
  • Downtime & maintenance costs
  • Safety
  • Meeting industry requirements & standards

Investing in reliable material handling control systems is a key component of all four. Working efficiently means you can focus human brainpower elsewhere, reduce mistakes in repetitive tasks, and scale your design to meet demand

Let’s learn how to select a partner that can take you there:

Unique Panel Features & Industry Use Cases

It’s not just conveyor belts that require electronic panels – they’re seemingly everywhere in the material handling industry these days. This means a blown panel can take down your whole system

Imagine a 1 million sq. ft. warehouse like the ones operated by FedEx, with miles of conveyors attached to control panels. How important is uptime in that scenario vs. a run-of-the-mill application?

That’s the challenge for many automation-dependent companies today.

Logistics, materials, and other automation-based applications face unique considerations for building automation control panels:

  • Integration – Panels in these settings need to integrate seamlessly with a wide range of equipment, such as conveyors, robotic arms, automated guided vehicles, and sorting systems. Advanced automation PLC panels and networking capabilities are necessary to communicate and coordinate actions across various devices.

  • Durability – Warehousing and material handling environments can be harsh, with dust, moisture, and temperature fluctuations. Panels must withstand these conditions, often requiring higher IP ratings (ingress protection) to protect against dust and water ingress and robust construction to handle temperature and humidity variations.

  • Safety – Features that protect workers and equipment are paramount in automated warehousing environments. Panels might need emergency stop controls, lockout/tagout capabilities, and circuits that interface with safety sensors and barriers.

  • Flexibility – As warehousing operations grow or change, the panel configuration may need to adapt. You may need a vendor capable of producing a modular design that allows for easy expansion or reconfiguration – no replacement necessary.

  • Energy efficiency – Management is critical in large warehousing operations looking to control costs and reduce environmental impact. Panels might need features for monitoring and managing energy usage, integrating with energy-efficient motors, and automated shutdown of processes when not in use.

  • Data collection & analysis – Real-time data in large-scale operations is necessary to optimize performance and make informed decisions. Panels often need to include capabilities for data acquisition, logging, and communication with warehouse management or resource planning systems.

  • Customization – You may need a panel shop or contractor that can build with a highly specific application in mind. Examples include unique control logic, specialized interfaces for handling equipment, and integration with specific types of sensors and actuators.

5 Qualities to Look for in an Automation Panel Builder

Working with several partners to complete a project ends up in significant hassle and downtime if just one of them drops the ball. 

In industrial automation, control panel partnerships work best with vendors who can provide these qualities in high- and low-demand periods: 

  1. Quick-turn capabilities
  2. Flexibility
  3. High level of engineering expertise
  4. Certifications
  5. Business stability

1. Quick-Turn Capabilities

Meeting tight deadlines, regardless of the situation, is crucial to a panel partner’s value. Doing so without defects means you’ve got a winning combo.

To provide this level of service, an automation control panel manufacturers should demonstrate:

  • Dedicated resources and bandwidth to handle the scope of your project. The people, technology, and facility space to handle everything you aren’t set up for in-house
  • A machine-like efficiency in process setup and teardown. The logistical chops to have components ready on demand in time-crunch situations.
  • Clear communication processes throughout the product life cycle. Especially important if you need the vendor to accommodate last-minute changes.

A third-party panel vendor should always be a benefit to efficiency, not an obstacle. It should allow you to rest easier and focus on your automation system’s layout – and meeting this year’s business goals.


2. Flexibility

Is the project’s scope of work daunting to your team? Having a partner who can assist with the build, design, and layout puts less strain on you to develop skills in-house or source multiple manufacturers.

A 3P manufacturer can provide services you may not have the resources to execute effectively, including some you might not even be aware of. (So just ask!)

This level of service should extend to volume. A partner that can quickly produce a few prototypes is nice, but a panel contractor that can handle any volume is even better. If you find yourself suddenly needing 100s of plug-and-play assemblies per month, your vendor better be able to scale.

A good partner can grow as you grow, or adjust if you hit a slow period and don’t need high-volume deliveries.

3. High Level of Engineering Expertise

Industry-specific experience, especially if your application is highly demanding, means less need for in-depth explanation. That head start is invaluable during a time when you’re probably already putting out multiple fires. 

Not every panel manufacturer offers this support. Some simply take the directions you hand them, and pump out a product. A vendor with engineering aptitude can help:

  • Come up with custom solutions to solve specific operational needs
  • Identify panel design improvement opportunities
  • Support your production by staying at the forefront of technology and innovation

Of course, much of any vendor’s value comes down to cost, doesn’t it? Panel suppliers with engineering expertise can help balance the cost of quality with the quality of what you’re spending on. Some components, for example, can be replaced with a more cost-effective alternative without sacrificing the quality of the final assembly.

Even if your team is committed to handling the design work and system integration, a good automation control panel manufacturer can assist with design and system integration. It can help clear the way for your processes to continue smoothly.

4. Certifications

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is an independent organization that establishes safety standards for electronic products. You can’t get much past this group, so hopefully your industrial control manufacturer is well-versed in meeting UL standards.

To obtain UL508A certification and launch a product for an industrial setting, manufacturers must adhere to specific thresholds in the design, construction, and testing phases. Every component and material within an industrial control panel must be verified for safety and reliability.

Other certifications you might want to ask about include:

  • UL 698A – Safety standards for hazardous areas that need intrinsically safe (IS) barriers
  • UL 913 – Requirements for equipment in areas where gas, vapor, or dust present an explosion risk
  • ISO 9001 – General management standards for consistent product quality
  • IEC – Global safety & efficiency standards for electrical and electronic technology
  • NFPA 79 – Standards for fire and other hazard protection in industrial machinery
  • Application-specific – any considerations based on product industry standards, geographic region, or working environment

OEMs often opt for outsourcing when an external manufacturer presents a more efficient, cost-effective, or quicker solution for a demanding task. A full-service control automation panel builder possesses the build-for-UL experience that you or your specialized vendors might not have. As deep specialists, a dedicated control panel manufacturing team is likely better equipped to achieve UL-accepted outcomes efficiently

Consult With a Certified Manufacturer

5. Business Stability

Choose a partner with history, or your project might be history. Here’s how to identify whether an automation panel builder is reliable enough to add value to your operation:

  • On steady ground – Is the vendor financially secure, with buying power and decades of experience?
  • Track record of success – Your long-term projects deserve ongoing support necessary to steady production and meeting timelines for your own customers.
  • Big partner network – Established builders have longstanding partnerships with top component providers, and are capable of finding hard-to-source parts or viable alternatives.

A manufacturer with a proven cash flow, reputation, and relationships is much less likely to leave you hanging than an unproven alternative.

Automated Warehousing & Material Handling Lend to Production Success

Control panels in automation and material handling control systems come with unique requirements. You need a partner who can support the complex system integrations that make your logistics sing. Nailing the panel’s design is crucial to reliability and safety in these spaces, but there’s much more to sourcing a vendor than that.

A qualified vendor can:

  • Add quality
  • Ensure compliance with standards
  • Facilitate seamless integration
  • Offer valuable technical support
  • Contribute to overall efficiency & reliability

If you need a helping hand with automation control panels today (or yesterday), feel free to reach out:

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