In today's extended economic downturn, financial pressures are at the forefront of every company's thoughts. We are all looking for the new process or method that will allow us to prosper in difficult times.
As a manufacturer of custom, end-of-line case packing and palletizing solutions for a diverse clientele, we face the same economic pressure as our competitors to provide the best value to our clients.
Everybody is looking for the next Holy Grail. Nearly every magazine I pick up has an article on new hiring practices, new ISO standards, Six Sigma, or the 10 steps for survival.
The major controls vendors are touting next-generation motion control or safety bus as the key to success. Software vendors are telling us their newest CRM package will insure wonderful relationships with our customers. And while many of us in the automation industry tend to thrive on the "latest and greatest," I believe the most critical factor to success is to remember the tried and true principles that made our companies the successes they are today.
The rapid changes in technologies over the past several years made it easy to focus on technology and easy to forget one of the most important fundamentals: don't give the customer what they ask for; give them what they want.
I spoke with a major buyer of automation systems at an OMAC meeting a couple of years ago. "I don't really care about standards," he said. "All I want is a line that is economical, easy to run, and easy to fix when it breaks. If all the equipment I bought would do this, we wouldn't need all these formal standards." This individual was and still is a big proponent of the OMAC initiatives. His point was that the standards/specs are being developed as a replacement for really listening and understanding the needs of customers.
As an industrial packaging machinery OEM and system integrator for complete packaging lines, we believe that understanding what our customers need today and in the future is critical to a profitable and long-lasting relationship. While it seems easier and safer to be sure specifications are followed to the letter without discussing details or additional ideas with the customer, many parts of a spec package are written as a set of clues to a problem that has to be understood before it can be solved.
Over the years, we have seen numerous examples where understanding the needs of our customer has created a more optimal solution that worked for both the customer and for us. Having used one integrated platform as our standard controller for many years, our engineers and technicians have become very familiar and adept at integrated motion and communications. Recently, a major food manufacturer asked us to build a customized case packer. The machine would have to handle various products at high speeds. The design objectives of the equipment screamed to us for integrated motion. However, this customer had a lengthy spec sheet that called for another brand of motion controller and PLC. The spec sheet stated that there were to be no exceptions.
As most OEMs realize, it is impossible to be an expert on all platforms. If we had simply followed the customer's spec sheet, a tremendous burden would have been placed on our engineering staff. We would have been less able to support the equipment at the customer's facility. When we discussed this honestly with them, they told us they wanted our equipment because they were familiar with the quality of equipment supplied to them in the past. They explained that the major reason for the PLC/motion controller spec was that their personnel could support it. Since we thought it important for the case packer to have integrated motion, we talked with the maintenance personnel and came up with an inexpensive, thorough training plan.
In the end, we were able to follow our standards while providing a solution that was easy to maintain, less costly than if we had simply followed their spec sheets, and an overall better solution to the customer's problem. The customer got what they wanted, but they didn't necessarily get what they asked for.
What drives that ability on our end is realizing that our biggest successes are those projects where individuals develop a good personal relationship with each other. Whether it's with a customer or a key technology supplier, the old fashioned art of talking with each other is really the only "new" way to survive today.
Pete Squires is vice president, controls at Schneider Packaging Equipment, Brewerton, N.Y., a manufacturer of custom end-of-line solutions for case packing and palletizing systems. Learn more about them at www.schneiderequip.com