The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

Lack of skilled workers in the steel industry
Experience – Engineering

Experts wanted

Shortfall in specialists. The control and switchgear engineering sector is flourishing and orders are coming in thick and fast – yet the lack of specialists is still a great cause for concern among companies in the industry. Plenge GmbH from the German town of Oelde has concocted a winning recipe – exceed the capacity for young trainee positions, deploy specialists efficiently and tap into the opportunities opened up by automation across the board.

Text Dr. Jörg Lantzsch and Hans-Robert Koch ––– Photography

We have plenty of craftsmen in the family, but no electricians as of yet.” It was for a somewhat unusual reason that Noah Suedhues took up a training position at Plenge GmbH in Oelde/Münsterland three years ago. This summer, he completed his training to become an industrial engineering electrician, but ­before his training had even finished, ­Suedhues was invited to join a colleague to commission a project at a customer’s premises – a true sign of trust in Suedhues’s eyes. “Coming into direct contact with the customer during the on-site commissioning and the diverse tasks in our workshop really spurred me on,” he points out. When the company then offered to keep him on after his training, he didn’t need long to mull it over: “I said yes there and then.”

The number of trainee positions at the family-run business Plenge GmbH based in Oelde – which carries out electrical and control system engineering projects with some 70 employees – actually exceeds capacity. “If we can, we hire three or four trainees so that we can take them on as qualified staff after they’ve completed our trainee programme,” explains Wilfred Schnieder, who is responsible for HR matters within the company. “After all, trained, qualified staff are extremely hard to come by.” What’s more, some trainees decide to head to university once they’re fully trained. But recruiting trainees isn’t exactly plain sailing in the first place. Fifteen years ago, there were still around 50 applicants each year for each trainee position – today the figure is only around ten. To make matters worse, applicants’ qualifications often don’t meet the company’s requirements.

No two days are the same. Noah Suedhues (left) stayed on after his training due to his enthralling experience in the Plenge GmbH workshop.

Efforts on many fronts

“It doesn’t always go as smoothly as it did with Noah,” recounts Nicholas Visser-­Plenge, the control system and switchgear engineering company’s General Manager. Plenge uses any opportunity it can to win over young trainees, such as taking part at every training fair held in both Oelde and neighbouring towns. “We also attach great importance to a positive working atmosphere as this secures the company a positive image and consequently draws in applicants,” says Visser-Plenge. In order to retain qualified staff, the business offers numerous opportunities for further training and development, such as in hardware or software engineering. “Dedicated employees can make a career for themselves at our company. Many staff who now work in the electrical planning department were previously qualified team members in the workshop.”

The shortfall in specialist staff isn’t new, with Germany’s unemployment rate continuously falling since the last review was conducted. Although the rate currently still stands at around five per cent, many businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to find trained applicants, which is partly down to the fact that many jobseekers don’t possess sufficient qualifications. Another reason is that unemployment is very unevenly distributed across Germany. In many districts in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Lower Saxony and North Rhine Westphalia, the rate is approximately two per cent. Here, specialists talk of ‘full employment’. Companies in these regions sometimes have extreme difficulty in finding any applicants at all – finding qualified specialists is practically impossible.

Trainees wanted


* in percent; multiple answers possible; respondents: 8.905 (source: DIHK)

In order to secure the next generation of skilled workers, apprentices must be recruited. Companies want to provide incentives for training. The graphic shows how they intend to achieve this. 

Unfavourable conditions

The control system and switchgear engineering sector is particularly affected by the shortfall in specialists. Companies are often located in well-developed areas in the vicinity of customers in the mechanical and plant engineering business, chemical industry or other sectors that also have a large number of positions to fill. “Because the control system and switchgear engineering sector mostly receives orders for very small batch sizes that follow the ­particular customer’s specifications – ­often, it’s for a one-off piece – ­qualified staff are an absolute must,” says ­Visser-Plenge.

To add to the problem, many jobs in the workshop still need to be done by hand. The Fraunhofer Institute for Mechatronic Systems Design (IEM) conducted a review as part of its “Digital in NRW” project, which revealed that simply wiring an enclosure takes up 50 per cent of the overall time spent working on it. Further labour-intensive jobs include machining enclosures and fitting the necessary components onto mounting plates.

One way that control system and switchgear engineering companies can counteract the shortfall in specialists is to automate processes on the shop floor, focusing primarily on the long list of manual jobs that don’t call for any special qualifications. “The fact that a trained electrician cuts cable ducts and support rails to length and screws them onto an assembly plate is anything but efficient,” says Visser-Plenge. Most of the time, these types of processes can be easily automated. If trained workers are then able to concentrate on the remaining specialist tasks, workshop productivity rises without the need to hire any additional staff.

Not only Plenge GmbH relies on automation solutions. IEMA also relies on the Perforex machining centre and thereby increases capacity and quality.

Opportunities offered by automation

Nowadays, automated solutions are available for many of the tasks described above. One typical example is machining enclosure panels. Perforex CNC machining centres from Rittal Automation Systems are specifically geared towards the challenges of switchgear manufacturing. Drilling, milling, cutting bolts – they can do it all. An automatic tool-changer and a magazine that can hold up to 20 tools means all the work can be done in one go – the operator doesn’t have to lift a finger. The machining centre is suitable for every material commonly used in switchgear production such as steel, aluminium, copper and even plastic. Mounting plates, doors and even entire enclosures can be machined quickly and with precision.

Laser machining centres are the ideal choice for machining stainless steel enclosures. This year, Plenge decided to invest in this kind of machining centre from the Perforex LC range. “50 per cent of our orders involve stainless steel enclosures. The laser machining centre enables us to complete our long list of orders requesting stainless steel enclosures with a great deal of efficiency,” says Visser-Plenge.

“Our number of trainee positions ex­ceeds capacity to ensure we have enough trained staff.”

Nicholas Visser-Plenge
General Manager at Plenge

Even for SMEs the payback period for these kinds of machining centres is relatively short, often lasting just two to three years – depending on the number of enclosures machined each year. “When we were deciding whether to invest, we didn’t have to think very long about the payback period because the benefits were plain to see,” recalls Visser-Plenge.

Other control system and switchgear engineering tasks, such as cutting support rails and cable ducts to size, fitting terminal blocks onto support rails or assembling cables, can be automated – even the labour-intensive job of wiring can be optimised. The Smart Wiring software tool from Eplan supports employees when fitting wires inside an enclosure, showing all the individual connections that have to be wired on a tablet. Besides the start and end point, the software also maps out the colour, cross-section, wire end preparation and connection point designations. If a virtual prototype has been created for the system in Eplan Pro Panel, the route for the wire or cable can also be depicted.

Completely optimised workflows

Achieving maximum efficiency in the workshop calls for all processes to be digitized. The circuit diagram generated during electrical planning and the virtual prototype form the basis for all subsequent working steps. The more detail that goes into the planning, the more efficient production can be. Digitization is seeing some tasks in the workshop being outsourced to the planning office, which generally means projects can be completed with a lot less manpower.

Visser-Plenge is just one of many who have discovered that such solutions boost efficiency, having recorded a significant increase in machining efficiency thanks to the new Perforex LC. Previously, two employees were charged with machining – one of whom can now see to other tasks in the workshop.

“To ensure everything goes perfectly, one of the things we need is for data to be stored consistently – from electrical planning and work preparation through to manufacturing and the ERP system,” explains Visser-Plenge. State-of-the-art automated solutions also help to boost employee motivation, as Suedhues’s statement shows: “I’m already looking forward to working on the new laser system in the future.”

Why system engineers are opting for automation

Solutions from Rittal Automation Systems and Eplan offer clear-cut advantages. But don’t take our word for it, listen to what Plenge GmbH from Germany and other European control system and switchgear engineering companies have to say. Users and experts from Italy, the UK and Austria share their opinions. A recurring theme is that they all believe Perforex machining centres and laser centres, in conjunction with Eplan solutions, boost capacity and process efficiency, enhance quality and open up new opportunities for growth.

More interesting reads

— Engineering
VX25 enclosure

The VX25 put to the test

— Information technology
Computer centres for smart cities

Smart City Songdo – the city that thinks

— Energy
Software for wind farms

Successful experiment in the wire harness