Machine Builders Speak, Vendors Listen

You can influence the way suppliers design their control system products

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March 2003 cover imageThere are thousands of control system hardware and software products on the market, says the machine builder, but none of them meets my specific requirements. Sound familiar?

Machine, robot, and skid builder OEMs are often frustrated because products designed for the mass market don't meet their particular needs, and there's a big emphasis these days on making do with off-the-shelf commercial components.

It turns out that smart industrial OEMs can definitely influence how vendors design control systems. In fact, in many circumstances, industrial OEMs have unique power over vendor product design.

As a result of this influence, machine builders can design control systems that work well, are successfully received by customers, and provide opportunities for a continuous infusion of performance features.

"OEMs can exert a powerful influence on vendor product design because of enormous purchasing potential and because of stable, repeatable procurement rates," says Brian Prescott, senior engineer in advanced development with machine builder Cookson Electronics Equipment, Londonderry, N.H.

OEMs have purchasing power because many of them buy in larger quantities than end users, adds Dave Umland, PE, senior controls engineer with the Energy Services Div. of General Electric, Loveland, Colo.

"The true Holy Grail for product vendors is an OEM application," adds Karl Leeser, vice president of engineering for a materials processing equipment builder. "These applications often require higher levels of technical support than end user accounts, but the rewards come in the form of serious repeat business for the same product, in the same configuration, over and over again."


Figure 1: Conversation Creates Compliance

Weiler Labeling Systems' participation in the design of Parker's operator interface software led to the inclusion of features that facilitated FDA compliance with electronic signatures. (Source: Weiler)

Many industrial OEMs are content to maintain these relationships for long periods of time. "If a control system component designed into an industrial machine maintains reliability and cost, there is no reason to spend engineering resources to change it," says David Lee, manager of product development with Automated Assemblies Corp., Clinton, Mass. As a result, "OEMs have a bigger voice in product design than they realize."

OEMs not only have tremendous buying power, they are also one of the best sources of feedback for control system vendors. "OEMs often become the end user's messenger/representative," says Greg Borsos, electrical engineering manager with Weiler Labeling Systems, Moorestown, N.J. "They get feedback from all their customers, and they channel this input back to [device and component] vendors."

Smart vendors will bend over backwards to win and keep a good OEM account, and that often includes a high degree of product customization based on OEM needs. While vendors design to a common denominator to pump up volumes and reduce costs, OEMs want only what they need and no more.

Many vendors recognize this and are addressing requirements by using industrial OEM input when designing their products, building products that can be easily customized, and building full-custom products. OEMs have perhaps more power and influence over vendors than any other customers, and we'll show how savvy OEMs use this influence to get the best products for their applications.

Yes, They Do Listen

Nearly all vendors claim to use customer input when designing new products, but some demonstrate more of a commitment than others. Parker CTC has a formal software design process that ensures thorough consideration of machine builder input. One of the methods used to get this input is a user story. Each story consists of a few sentences describing the use of the product by a customer.

Weiler Labeling Systems was one of the key participants in the design of Parker's InteractX operator interface software. Weiler designs and manufactures labeling machines for the personal health care and pharmaceutical industries (Figure 1). Its user story led to the inclusion of features that facilitated FDA compliance with electronic signatures.

"With InteractX, our pharmaceutical customers now have the option of meeting the requirements placed on them by CFR 21 Part 11, which deals with handling of electronic records on computer systems," says Borsos.

USNR, Woodland, Wash., makes sawmill machinery, and its Perceptron division is responsible for optimization and controls. Wade Hendrix, Perceptron's electrical engineering manager and product team coordinator, participated in an in-depth product development survey conducted by Delta Computer Systems. Delta says the survey was used to develop design specifications for a new motion controller.

Hendrix was both surprised and pleased by the depth of the survey. "Delta visited our facility and we went through several pages of pointed, leading questions about how its products could be improved for the future," says Hendrix. "This is the first time I've participated in this level of a survey regarding a new product design."

These types of focused interviews often reveal weaknesses in a vendor's current product line and are thus sometimes avoided. "Other vendors just usually ask me what other features we need, but Delta instead took the time to lead me toward things it was already thinking of implementing," adds Hendrix. "Delta wanted to develop a consensus that its customers really needed these improvements."

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