With manufacturing trending toward flexibility and modularity, enclosure manufacturer Rittal now also runs an automation division for customized off-the-shelf solutions. Tim Rourke, president of Rittal Systems Ltd. (Rittal Canada), discusses the shift.
Manufacturing AUTOMATION: How have you seen the industry change over the last 25 years since you first started at Rittal Canada?
Tim Rourke: The digitization of everything has had a big impact in terms of how our customers work with us and work with our products. They really relied on us back then, in the ’90s, to provide them with all of the technical information that they required. So much of that information now is available self-serve. So it’s really about communicating to customers about what you can do and how you do it. Today, we’re completely selling around a system concept and utilizing our value chain.
MA: How has Rittal’s product line shifted to meet market demand?
TR: The [enclosure] cabinet today is doing much more than it did 20 years ago. They’re more efficient in terms of the amount of space that they’re using within the manufacturing facility. It’s more about flexibility. That’s what we see with the dramatic increase in popularity of modular solutions that have a variety of accessories that allow you to customize that solution. It’s standard off the shelf, but you can customize it to your unique application. With our modification centre, we’ll put the solution together for you. We’ll do all of the holes, drilling and tapping that you need for mounting your equipment – your components, push buttons, DIN rail, controllers, PLCs – inside the cabinet.
[Companies] have fewer resources than they had five years ago, 10 years ago, two years ago. So any way that you can provide more value to them that’s going to allow them to save time and even engineering costs is a big advantage. If you can engineer off a standard platform versus trying to engineer off a custom solution, you can save money.
MA: Do manufacturers tend to over-customize?
TR: If you’re an engineer and designing a new control system, or a new machine or any piece of equipment, there’s kind of a vision of what you have in a world of “anything’s possible.” But there needs to be the focus on, well, what is going to make it easy to manufacture that? And easy to manufacture that more than once, if it’s something that you’re doing on a repeat basis.
That’s where there’s a challenge with the self-serve aspect – our ability is to work as a technical consultant. It’s really important for our sales organization to be working with the customer to get the raw data and have a good understanding of where you want to go. And then we like to come in and help them create the simplest, most efficient, optimized version of their vision.
MA: Rittal has expanded beyond enclosure solutions into the automation market. Can you talk more about that?
TR: It’s a growing piece and represents a lot of opportunity for us. Rittal automation extends from small, portable machines for wire process automation – so cutting wires to length and automatically stripping and crimping a ferrule onto the end of a wire to save a lot of time in wire processing. You can imagine how much savings there are to be realized if you can take that process from a minute to strip and crimp a wire to 10 seconds, or five seconds, and there are 500 wires in a control panel.
[With] the Perforex machines, we can do cut outs in the side of the box, in the door of the enclosure, the side walls, the control top, the mounting panel. When you’re talking about 10 per cent of the time it takes to do that manually, the ability to automate at the manufacturing side of control panels creates an opportunity for those industries to gain an advantage over their competition in their particular space.
In the higher-end wire terminal machine, which is much more complex, you can have 36 wires with different gauges and colour insulation feeding into it [and] it produces the wire bundle that you need for a particular control panel. So if you need 250 wires, you will get a bunch of wires that are all cut to the right length, all stripped, all crimped with the ferrule on the end and all marked with the proper wire markings. Fifty per cent of the time in the manufacturing of a control panel goes into wire processing and wire landing. So there’s a lot of savings to be had for system integrators and panel shops.
MA: What’s been your biggest challenge at Rittal?
TR: I’ve been president for four years and we have 55 staff. Our biggest challenge is staffing and personnel. As we grow, we need to look for people, new skill sets. We need to put people into positions that maybe didn’t exist in our organization two or three years ago. The first challenge is finding the people, and then the second is creating the environment where they want to stay.
MA: What kinds of roles didn’t exist before?
TR: We’ve had some technical people in place, and the job that they’re doing has evolved. It was technical support at the beginning and now it has really moved more into an engineering type of role within our organization. That’s one area we’ve really had to grow to support the modification side of our business – to support the increasing complexity of what our customers are trying to do, and the increasing complexity of our product as well.
MA: What are clients are trying to overcome when they first come to you looking for a solution?
TR: Quite often they come to us when they’ve failed to find a solution somewhere else and they’re looking for something different.
We have one particular customer where we now drill and tap the mounting panel for them, so that when they get it they just have to start mounting their components onto the panel inside the enclosure. There are over 700 holes in that. That takes us about 45 minutes for us to do on our machine, and that used to take one person [on their end] one whole day. So maybe we are 10 per cent more expensive for the product itself in the door, but we just saved you eight hours of shop time with your guy. Now you can take that person and have them do something that’s more productive than simply drilling and tapping a mounting panel.
MA: What do you see the Canadian manufacturing landscape looking like over the next three to five years?
TR: It’s tough to predict – what the Canadian manufacturing landscape needs is some support from government. We’re suffering from continual contraction in the manufacturing space in Canada. And the industry needs some assistance to continue to be competitive and continue to be an attractive place for companies to establish manufacturing. We do show that you can be profitable manufacturing things in Canada, but you’ve got to be efficient and you’ve got to be innovative in your approach. Where we go depends on what governments want to do in terms of supporting innovation, cost efficiency and automation of the manufacturing processes, and training people to support these new technologies.
The manufacturing environment is changing; we can’t put all these people out of work. We have to find a way to retrain so they can work in the new manufacturing environment. Companies can do that. We all bear a responsibility to help train and develop the people that we need within our particular spaces and industries […] but it also needs the support of consistent, cooperative government programs at the federal level and the provincial level. Everybody should be coming together to create an environment for the manufacturing community in Canada that can compete with the rest of the world.
In our particular industry, electricity isn’t going anywhere. There are going to continue to be opportunities in the electrical industry because of the increasing move toward powering things with electricity. We’re moving away from fossil fuels, and moving more to electricity. The consumption and purchase of electric cars is skyrocketing right now. So to continue to build the infrastructure to support that is going to be good for the electrical industry. Some of the other industries are going to be more of a challenge.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.