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A box is just a box....or is it?

The UK enclosures industry has changed out of all proportion in the 30 years since some of us old-timers entered what was at the time a pretty limited market.

Sheet steel enclosures were almost exclusively used for both indoor and outdoor control housing applications. GRP was seen as an expensive alternative, specified by the large water and utility companies, and the use of wall mounted plastic enclosures was basically limited to electrical contractors looking for a low cost box, with PVC being the material of choice and invariably purchased from an Electrical Wholesaler.

Although the sheet steel enclosure industry remains strong, the emergence of high grade thermoplastic enclosures as viable alternatives has completely changed the landscape of the industry.

Today’s discerning enclosure specifier must now take into account a number of factors when choosing the most suitable product for their application. Environmental considerations are now a high priority. In the vast majority of cases such decisions are made by a committee consisting of representatives from different disciplines within the company. The Value Chain.
Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM’s) now demand far more from the enclosures they specify, and this in turn has ensured that those manufacturers serious about serving them efficiently must be able to offer a complete package of products and services.

In the past the stigma relating to anything plastic proved restrictive. The perception was if it was steel it was strong and would last. Recently the horrors of PVC have been exposed by the RohS Directive but back then it was a case of Hobson’s Choice.

Nowadays, high grade materials such as Polycarbonate and ABS are readily available to design and R&D engineers who are looking for more than just “a box”. IP, flammability and temperature ratings, UV stabilisation, resistance to corrosion and RohS compliance top the list of requirements.

We are all painfully aware of how hard the recent recession hit electrical and electronic manufacturing. The resulting cutbacks now mean many companies are looking to their enclosure suppliers to provide more than just the enclosure. So to succeed the supplier must be able to provide a comprehensive customising service delivered to often tight deadlines . From a simple hole for a cable gland or pushbutton to highly complex milling, corporate colours and graphics, internal bracketry and fixings, all of there and much more are now the norm in the decision process of design and R&D engineers.

There is no doubt that a major influence in an OEM companies Value chain is the Marketing department. Aesthetics have never been so important. Many companies manufacture families of products and being able to standardise on a single enclosure design in various sizes is of great importance. So to succeed, enclosure suppliers must be able to satisfy this requirement from their standard product portfolio. Variety of choice is key. The demise of Saab is testament to what happens when companies rest on their laurels.

But of course Murphy’s Law dictates that however many options are available, there will always be a requirement which cannot be fulfilled from a standard range. By using modern tooling techniques a few enclosure companies offer the possibility of developing bespoke enclosure solutions which are viable in terms of cost and delivery lead times.

Two key factors taken into account by the specifier’s Value Chain relate to their production process. Many companies operate a JIT system, therefore confidence in their suppliers ability to deliver is crucial. Credible suppliers must be able to demonstrate their ability to meet agreed deadlines time after time. Running alongside this is the issue of quality. Modern injection moulding techniques virtually guarantee continuity in the quality of the products being produced. A couple of manufacturers even use robots to inject molten gasket material into their enclosures to guarantee consistent quality. The result of all of this is no disruption to the client’s production due to QA rejections.

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. As with many other areas of the electrical and electronics manufacturing industry the enclosures sector has not been spared from the insurgence of copycat products from the Far East. But looks, and more importantly promises, can be deceptive. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” undoubtedly pertains. As detailed above, there is so much more to specifying a fit for purpose enclosure than just asking for the box. Only those manufacturers and suppliers serious about serving their clients Value Chain in total will succeed.

So what does the future hold for the UK thermoplastic enclosure industry? In some respects those of us who are seen as the main players are the governors of our own destiny. Only those manufacturers willing and able to invest heavily in market driven product development, state of the art production technology, local in-depth stocks and employee development will be equipped to offer the sort of first class customer service being demanded by the market. And only these will prosper.

Let us not ignore the importance quality distribution plays, and will continue to play, in the strategy of the leading enclosure manufacturers. Reliance on local stock and trained sales personnel is crucial to the future of the industry. Once again, those producers willing to invest time and resource in maintaining a proactive distributor network will be able to serve the diverse enclosure buying market.

Steve Gallon, Fibox

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