Industrial Control Panel Manufacturing: The Process of Quality

2 racks of OEM panels in a control panel manufacturing facility

Many articles list what to look for in a quality industrial control panel, but few mention how that quality is ensured for every control panel when manufacturing 1,000 identical panels. Ensuring quality in orders of ten to twenty panels is vastly different from orders of 500 or more. In industrial control panel manufacturing, maintaining consistent quality across large orders requires a process of quality in 5 key areas:

  1. Risk Management
  2. Document Control
  3. Change Management
  4. Internal Audits
  5. Nonconformance Handling

These 5 areas should be part of an established Quality Management System. This blog post describes what to look for in each area to assess an industrial control panel manufacturer’s process of quality.

Quality Doesn’t “Just Happen” in Control Panel Manufacturing

For customers assessing control panel manufacturers, all suppliers may seem similar. They are all control panel experts who build panels every day – so quality just happens, right?

Although it may seem that way, manufacturing large orders of 1,000 or more industrial control panels is very different from building orders of ten to twenty custom panels. For small custom orders, control panel shops can rely on veteran employees who review every detail of each panel to ensure quality. However, for orders of more than 30 panels, this type of review is no longer feasible.

So, if the experts can’t review every panel in large orders, how can quality be ensured for each panel? Achieving a process of quality for control panel manufacturing requires the development of a Quality Management System.

Ensuring quality in orders of 10 to 20 panels is vastly different from orders of 500 or more. In industrial control panel manufacturing, maintaining consistent quality across large orders requires a well-established process of quality.

A Quality Management System Specifies the Entire Process

According to the American Society for Quality, a Quality Management System is “a formalized system that documents processes, procedures, and responsibilities for achieving quality policies and objectives. A QMS helps coordinate and direct an organization’s activities to meet customer and regulatory requirements and improve its effectiveness and efficiency on a continuous basis.”

For a QMS to be effective, the manufacturer must develop written procedures and store them in an accessible location. In addition, manufacturers must complete regular internal audits to assess the effectiveness of each procedure. Records of each audit must be maintained.

For failures in any area of an audit, the responsible department must generate a Corrective Action Report describing the actions required to fix the problem. Employees must complete the Corrective Actions and update the original procedure, or create a new procedure. The manufacturer must test the new procedure to ensure it resolves the problem.

Block chart shows 7 required functions of a QMS (quality management system) for control panel manufacturing and how the different functions work together
Characteristics of an effective QMS for Control Panel Manufacturing

The Process of Quality for Control Panel Manufacturing: 5 Key Areas

To ensure consistent quality across large and highly variable orders, as part of their QMS suppliers must have a well-established internal process of quality in risk management, document control, change management, internal audits, and nonconformance handling.

Chart showing the 5 keys areas in the process of quality for control panel manufacturing
5 Key Areas in the Process of Quality for Control Panel Manufacturing

These areas are especially important since many control panel manufacturers are smaller than the companies that outsource to them. To meet the manufacturing quality standards of large companies, control panel manufacturers must have documented and continuously improved processes in the form of a QMS. All employees must consistently follow the system.

Risk Management

In industrial control panel manufacturing, risk mitigation strategies become even more important as the volume of customer panels increases. The following sections describe five areas in which manufacturers can reduce risk in the control panel manufacturing process.

Work Standardization for Control Panel Manufacturing

Manufacturers can minimize risk by defining a standard panel manufacturing process and work, which allows them to easily identify and highlight exceptions in the process.

Elimination of Tribal Knowledge

Eliminating tribal knowledge, and ensuring that all employees are trained to perform a task in the same way improves consistency in industrial control panel manufacturing. It can also reduce risk by developing a team of employees with standard knowledge of the process.

Panel Manufacturing Quoting Method Consistency

Manufacturers can significantly reduce risk on the front end of the industrial control panel manufacturing process by using a consistent method for providing estimates. For example, the manufacturer can use software that allows reuse and produces very consistent output.

UL 508A/UL 698A Knowledge

A manufacturer with extensive knowledge of industrial control panel manufacturing standards reduces risk for customers by providing the ability to identify possible design or safety risks in the customer’s panels before manufacturing begins. Possible issues can be clarified with the appropriate application of standards.

Post-Production Job Review

Suppliers can reduce risk in panel manufacturing by using post-production processes and production management software. Post-production job review as part of the process can reduce risk by providing ongoing opportunities for improvement.

Consider the following when assessing a supplier’s level of risk management:

  • What risk mitigation strategies does the supplier employ when manufacturing customer panels?
  • Are the strategies part of a consistent process the supplier follows for every order?
  • Does the supplier possess a level of technical knowledge about industry standards that allows them to help customers by identifying possible areas of risk in the customer’s design?

Document Control

Since a Quality Management System requires written documents and records, how should manufacturers create, organize, and manage these documents?

The supplier should have a clear, written procedure guiding the creation, organization, and storage of documents. The procedure should make it easy for all employees to find the information they need by facilitating consistent document numbering and storage as well as a consistent way of organizing information.

The following questions can help you assess a supplier’s Document Control system:

  • Does the supplier have a written procedure outlining how to number, organize, and store documents?
  • Do employees consistently follow the procedure for every document?
  • Can any employee access the document storage system and easily find what they need?

Change Management

To manage and track customer requests to change a control panel order, it is important that the panel manufacturer has a controlled and scalable process to manage changes while still ensuring quality.

The supplier’s process becomes even more important if a customer needs to change an order that is already in process.

Since situations may arise that require changes to in-process orders, it is important to evaluate potential suppliers in this area. In-process changes may be beyond the scope of the manufacturing contract in place, so a supplier may not be obligated to make changes.

Therefore, it is important to understand the supplier’s customer service culture. Suppliers with a strong focus on customer service are more likely to go above and beyond to truly help a customer find a solution even in situations that are outside the scope of the contract.

Evaluate the following to assess a supplier’s process and customer service focus:

  • Does the supplier use a well-defined, scalable process for every control panel order?
  • Is customer service a core part of the culture at this company?

Internal Audits

Maintaining a process of quality in industrial control panel manufacturing requires a commitment to continuous improvement. Conducting regular internal audits is an important part of this commitment.

Consider the following questions to help you evaluate a supplier’s level of commitment:

  • Is the supplier internally committed to continuous improvement as a company, or are improvements driven only by customer requests?
  • Does the manufacturer evaluate their internal procedures and then take corrective action to make improvements?
  • How often does the supplier perform these internal audits?
  • How does the company make sure the improvements happen?

Nonconformance Handling

Nonconformances for control panel manufacturers are typically defined as any failure to meet customer specifications or documented internal processes.

Corrective Action Reports are investigations carried out internally to determine the source of a nonconformance.

Corrective Actions are reactions to a nonconformance, dictated by a corrective action report, and intended to fix the root cause and/or modify a process or processes so that the cause is monitored to prevent a reoccurrence.  

The questions below can help you evaluate a supplier’s commitment to addressing nonconformances:

  • How does the supplier handle nonconformance?
  • Is there a written policy, or does the supplier just “wing it” when nonconformances occur?
  • Does everyone involved in panel manufacturing consistently follow the policy?
  • Is there a nonconformance system or does the “system” consist of one person with a spreadsheet?
  • Does the company follow up to make sure corrective actions happen?
  • Does the company complete and log documentation showing that the department responsible corrected the problem and installed proper controls to prevent a reoccurrence?

Panel Manufacturing Quality Process: Conclusion

To ensure quality and consistency in the manufacturing of large volumes of industrial control panels, manufacturers must develop a quality process that the company regularly audits and improves. The presence of this process is a key area that differentiates control panel manufacturers from panel shops.

Consider assessing potential manufacturing partners based on their process of quality in risk management, document control, change management, internal audits, and nonconformance handling. Decide whether suppliers fit your outsourcing needs based on their assessment score.

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