The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

Innovation – Rittal

System perfection

A plan. A study. A race.
The development of the new VX25 large enclosure from Rittal has been extraordinary. The milestone five-year R&D story shows that it’s much more than just an enclosure.

Text Ulrich Kläsener ––– Photography

Rittal plant, Herborn, summer 2012. When it comes to the bestseller of a company with a headcount of 10,000, it’s time to look to the boss. In April 2012, Professor Friedhelm Loh himself issued a clear order: “We need to develop a new enclosure for our customers. The best there is.” Sitting at the opposite side of the desk was Dr Thomas Steffen, Managing Director Research and Development, who understood the implications of the biggest challenge for over 15 years. “There couldn’t be a more significant project at Rittal. The large enclosure is our system platform, our core, our foundation.”

Industry 4.0 as a driving force

The mind starts to buzz. Where do we start? Evolution or revolution? What constitutes the best? What do switchgear engineers need? Only one thing is clear at this point, with the spectre of Industry 4.0 having shrouded the market for a year – the new large enclosure from Rittal will have to be 100% Industry 4.0-capable. That’s an absolute must. After all, only a combination of actual enclosure and its digital twin will satisfy all digitization needs, from online configuration and engineering to assembly, automation and maintenance. “The new reality” is how Steffen refers to the highly efficient fusion of real and physical workflows in the product lifecycle. “Some 20 years ago, it wasn’t a big issue in enclosure building, but an enclosure isn’t fit for the future without consistent, end-to-end data or software-based rules.” As designer and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe put it: “It’s more difficult to make a good chair than a skyscraper.”

Back to the roots

The need to go back to the heart of it all motivated the Rittal developers to study practical needs between 2012 and 2014 – and that produced the ideal answer to the problem. Indeed, Steffen did not kick off the search for the perfect enclosure at the drawing board or in the lab. “Back to the roots – that was the solution. Before we could let our team get on with developing the new enclosure, we had to revisit our customers’ workshops to find out what challenges they are facing right now and analyse the issues.” Rittal worked with the ­Munich-based institute PMO to launch a wide-ranging field study. Researchers were sent to ten industrial companies in Germany, eight in the USA and six in China – with small and medium-sized companies well represented – and spent three days at each company documenting everyday working life in writing, pictures and videos.

No compromises

Dr Steffen recounts the study: “The user analysis was an eye-opener. In some cases, we spotted problems that the customers themselves hadn’t yet identified.” The end result was a total of 150 specific requirements for the new enclosure, which Rittal added to with findings from the customer advisory council that was also involved. “We didn’t give up on a single one of the main points during subsequent development work.” So, what, for example, was taken into account? “Simplified assembly, a 25 mm pitch pattern, added flexibility in baying, higher load capacities, fewer accessory parts and an extremely stable base section.” The usability study eradicated any lingering doubts about the strategic direction for the new large enclosure. The market needs an enclosure that immediately reduces throughput times in engineering and assembly, minimises complexity in the wake of batch size 1 and slots neatly into the megatrend of digitization.

“We didn't give up on a single one of the main points during subsequent development works.”


Dr Thomas Steffen
Managing Director Research and Development

Nurture and demand

However, there was a brief pause for reflection before the mantra of “more digital – simpler – faster” was transformed into actual design work. “It was a brilliant move,” says Steffen, referring to Professor Loh’s decision to set three development teams against each other. There was the research and development team based at the Herborn headquarters, the team from the Rittershausen plant and a team put together from an external development company based in southern Germany, which was supported by two well-known Rittal veterans, Heinrich Styppa and Hans-Jürgen Graf. The three teams worked in complete isolation from each other on the same primary task – to design the perfect profile for the best enclosure of all time. “They were all given an in-depth induction in the findings from the field study, but worked entirely autonomously and with no design limitations.”

For a good three months, the two Rittal teams were released from all other duties and plucked out of their usual workplace, timetable and even headspace. “The ­telephones went, e-mails were diverted, existing projects were handed over – all that was assigned to other people.” The new offices became incubators, like those normally ­associated with start-ups in the tech sector – it was all about shaping the future with cool heads and passionate hearts. Dr Steffen explains: “Of course, the development teams had to find their feet first – you can’t force that. But then they were off. They fired each other up, fuelled each other and encouraged each other. When things really got going, they poured out every last detail of every idea that had collected in their heads over 20 years of enclosure engineering. Of course, everyone was constantly wondering what the other teams were doing. Then again, uncertainty can produce a lot of new ideas.”

The right path

Two profile designs from each of the three teams – which together had produced more than 200 – were put before a judging panel in October 2013. Professor Loh set out the primary criterion. “It comes down to functions and customer benefits – which solution implements the most?” The new profile from the Rittal research and development team won through – much to the delight of Steffen: “We were vindicated – it takes years of experience to develop very, very good enclosures.” He was impressed by the dynamic of the five-year development story behind the VX25: “We would do it exactly the same way again.”

  • Watched. Listened. Learned

    Watched. Listened. Learned

    Before developing the new VX25 large enclosure, Rittal commissioned a year-long field study on three continents. Munich-based institute PMO Usability-Engineering & Organisations-Entwicklung conducted the study. Interview: Institute director Dr Elke Maria Deubzer.

    What is “usability”? It describes the extent to which a product has been tailored to its users, their tasks and the wider context. That’s the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ that we delve into, on a scientific level.

    You started by visiting control and switchgear manufacturers in Germany with a team of usability experts, psychologists and anthropologists – what exactly did you do at these companies? We carried out user-task-context analyses. That involves going on-site to record specific data regarding users and their knowledge, preferences and motives. We also observe their tasks, the objectives of their activities, specific contextual conditions and usage scenarios.

    So you watched over the shoulders of enclosure fitters? We observed and interviewed everyone who works with enclosures in the relevant companies. Everything was documented in writing and sometimes with photographs and videos, too. But it wasn’t just enclosure fitters.

    It sounds complicated. That’s why usability engineering is the best way to get at the user. Usability goes much further than what we understand under the term “user experience”, as it also factors in tasks and context. To investigate these areas, you really need to understand how people work on a scientific level – it’s this expertise that guides you in the right direction.

    So what did you find out? Without wanting to go into details, some of our findings were unbelievable. Even with a product as supposedly simple as an enclosure, the study enabled us to expand what we know exponentially. We got the full gamut of reactions, from ‘wow’ to ‘genius’. That goes for the staff in the companies, too, as we gave them an opportunity to really reflect. After all, they don’t observe themselves and they can’t always say what their requirements are.

    Weren’t the “test subjects” distracted by having an outsider there documenting everything in finite detail? Isn’t there a risk that what you’re observing is not what actually happens under normal conditions? We have empirically triedand- tested tools and approaches to minimise disruptive factors such as the Rosenthal effect, selective perception and the halo effect. These include the researcher’s clothing and language, expert practical skills in recording data and even the period of time that we are on site. You often find it takes two to three hours for workers to get used to the situation.

    Your institute carried out three in-depth analyses at three companies in Germany – then teams of researchers from Rittal were sent to seven companies in Germany, six in China and eight in the USA. Why? Those were studies to check the findings in other markets and cultures. Ultimately, the large enclosure from Rittal is an international product. Of course, we provided the Rittal staff, which included preliminary developers, engineers and product managers, with training and guidance in the scientific methodology beforehand.

    What do you actually get from a usertask- context analysis? After documentation and evaluation, the focus shifts to ‘requirements engineering’ and development work on the potential for improvement and innovation. If I understand the requirements exactly, the R&D department gets a robust guide for its own development work.

     
back Part 2: Trial and Production  

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