Panel Builder System Integrator


November 1, 2017

Employees from AL-KO THERM GMBH were visiting an EPLAN stand at a trade fair and by chance came across EPLAN Engineering Configuration (EEC) – the system that enables simple and consistent configuration of mechatronics systems. They now use EEC worldwide as a configurator and benefit from significantly simpler instrumentation and control (I&C) engineering.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are modularly constructed using filters, heat exchangers, ventilators and heat recovery units. This is clearly evident in the systems manufactured by the company AL-KO THERM GMBH located in Jettingen-Scheppach near Augsburg, Germany. Each function is in a separately housed module. When walking through the factory, visitors will be impressed by the number of systems as well as the size of the production facility. As a market-leader, AL-KO THERM annually supplies around 5000 individually designed systems.

Around 5000 "one-off" systems annually

Each of the 5000 systems are individually designed and constructed according to specific requirements and therefore a well functioning engineering process is necessary. At the core of this process is AL-KO's in-house developed software "Klim@Soft" for mechanical design. Nico Frühinsfeld, project leader responsible for I&C technology: "Klim@Soft is the main tool and links with EPLAN Electric P8 for electrical engineering as well as to SAP for commercial tasks." While a consistent and continuous process had existed here for some time, this wasn't case for I&C engineering. I&C covers the entire control and monitoring of all functions such as air flows, temperatures and humidity as well as the setting of a multitude of valves and flaps. It is down to the customer whether they acquire an integrated control system from AL-KO Therm, or use an on-site system integrator. Nico Frühinsfeld, project leader, explains the workflow: "A specialist designer determines all the necessary parameters and asks for a quote from us for the system via an installation company. We are really keen to provide the system with our AL-KO control technology – known as ART. However, the different system sections, including I&C engineering, are separately put out to tender which means we also have to provide systems without I&C technology."

Goal: Automated design of I&C engineering

As a provider of systems, AL-KO THERM aims to deliver as many systems as possible with I&C technology. However, this aim is hindered by sales and marketing procedures. During the quotation phase, I&C is too complex to be included in a quick quotation while an option is usually available to offer the systems without I&C technology. To overcome this, automating I&C engineering design was desired by those responsible at AL-KO. An initial idea for such automation was conceived in 2010 – and then quickly discarded. Although the in-house development of a configurator was feasible it was too costly especially due to the need for its continuous maintenance. A visit to a trade fair in autumn of 2014 then led to the "configurator" project being revived. While colleagues from design were discussing a specific project with EPLAN experts, Nico Frühinsfeld was looking around the stand and noticed EPLAN Engineering Configuration, or EEC for short.

A chance finding of the basis for an I&C configurator

It quickly became apparent that the solution fulfilled all the basic requirements AL-KO had from a configurator and was simple to implement because AL-KO was already working with EPLAN Electric P8. I&C engineering could then be easily integrated into the existing continuous process. EEC was therefore installed.

This module provides automation in I&C configuration at the highest possible level. It is also linked with EPLAN Electric P8 as well as with Klim@Soft – and hence also SAP – and is therefore optimally integrated into a continuous and consistent process. This enables a significantly simplified I&C engineering process. Nico Frühinsfeld: "Our version of EEC does much more than 'just' configuration. It is used for all control processes, and automatically generates schematics as well as bills of material in I&C design." For AL-KO THERM's I&C specialists, it was vital that configuration was made as easily and practical as possible: "Mechanical engineering remains the focus in our sector so EEC users shouldn't be required to be I&C experts."

"We have become significantly faster"

The configurator "reads" the components selected by the designer and the inherent logic from these as required by I&C circuits and components. The configurator thereby detects whether, for example, humidity control should or must be included. Users can of course also define and determine more precisely each type of control. An accessories list enables the selection of options at just a click – the system then integrates the option into the electrical and I&C plan.

When the configurator eventually transfers the I&C scheme to Klim@Soft, it includes the schematic and cable layout. Klim@Soft then forwards the I&C plan to SAP which either picks or orders the necessary parts. At this stage, the costs for the I&C components are already transparent.

The consistency and continuity of the process also means designers can work much faster. Nico Frühinsfeld: "I&C engineering used to slow down our design processes. It is now not only faster but we can also depend on it being free of errors." This applies also to special applications designed for specific control systems, e.g. for explosion prevention, the pharmaceuticals industry, hospitals and marine engineering – cruise ships also use AL-KO Therm systems for air conditioning.

Approximately 1000 users around the world in office-based and field sales

Meanwhile around 100 of a total 1000 active Klim@Soft users have been trained in using the configurator – not all of these are required to perform I&C tasks. Office-based and field sales use it on both fixed and mobile devices. A range of language versions are available. Chinese character sets are also supported due to AL-KO THERM having a China-based factory. The web-based version of EEC is used so from a users point of view updates take place automatically.

The question always associated with automation is how much can be saved? At AL-KO, this is not an issue. Nico Frühinsfeld: "In the systems being designed, we wanted to raise the share that included I&C technology – and that is what we have achieved."

Those responsible at AL-KO THERM also see other benefits which include the high level of design precision and transparent costs provided by links to Klim@Soft and SAP. Working together with EPLAN also made a good impression. It is therefore no surprise that AL-KO have further plans with the configurator. Nico Frühinsfeld: "We can well imagine that designers will also use the system to automatically configure parameters for our control systems. System control would then undergo parametrisation directly from SAP."

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