Are you collaborating with your competitors?

Suppliers are in growing collaboration with your competitors, which might be affecting you in ways you're unaware of. Read why Editor in Chief Joe Feeley believes in keeping your enemies closer.

 By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief


he focus of our cover story and OEM Insight column this month is collaboration: including the good—that’s mostly the case in the cover story, Machine Fusion, and then the bad and the ugly—that’s what our guest column author tells us happens when the foundation of collaboration gives way.

We’ve written with some regularity about the value of collaborative efforts among machine builder, customer, system integrator and controls supplier.

Another rarely mentioned positive angle that I see about collaboration is a slow turn in conventional wisdom about how some companies cover overhead costs. That might be affecting you in ways you’re unaware of. Suppliers are in growing collaboration with your competitors.

You get parts from many sources. Machine builders certainly buy an increasing amount of standard, off-the-counter, brand-name components. But many of you still need some customization, whether it’s size, density or function, or just a weird shape to fit in a weird space on the machine.

Chances are pretty good that your competitors also have similar needs, just not precisely the same as yours. The cost for the supplier is higher because he’s making multiple custom items, but he’s passing that along to you in higher prices.

If there are enough of those special “specials” on every one of a builder’s machines, is there value in all of you agreeing to use the same part? Maybe your panel builder is a candidate for this. Does somebody assemble wiring harnesses for you?

Nice theory, Joe. Any evidence? Well, as we came to deadline for this issue, a good example emerged, on such a scale it makes me think it can work elsewhere.

The Chicago Tribune recently did a long piece on the troubles besieging Boeing, which announced it’s selling its long-operated plants in Wichita, Kan. and Tulsa and McAlester, Okla. Canadian holding company Onex will buy the plants and try to improve their viability by taking work from customers that include Airbus, Boeing's European archrival, while continuing to supply parts to Boeing.

"It's counterintuitive," said Seth Mersky, managing director of Onex, in the Tribune story. "You might have thought Boeing's biggest concern would have been don't do business with Airbus. But in fact, it's quite the contrary. They want this factory full, because a full plant will lower the cost for everybody."

What do you think? If you’re not entirely buying in to this, maybe there’s a middle ground that doesn’t have you dancing quite as close to your direct competitors.

That panel builder and that wiring harness assembler probably do good business with machine builders outside your direct sphere. Do you know who they are? Maybe you should. If they have similar, but-not-quite-the-same custom parts, it’s time you discussed developing a common solution with all of them. I’ll bet you there’s more opportunity than you realize.

Before I go, I want to point out Senior Technical Editor Dan Hebert’s new column, Machine Builder Mojo. He’s turning over his TechFlash responsibility after this issue. He won’t be shy about letting you know what he likes and doesn’t like. Dan’s been a machine builder and an SI, and if you’ve followed his TechFlash column, you know he understands the business. This month, his treatment of how you keep your secrets a “secret” turns out to be an interesting and cautionary counterpoint to working with your competitors.

As with all of our content, don’t be shy about giving Dan your feedback and reactions.

To finish up on relocation issues, you’ll now find Jeremy Pollard’s always engaging Embedded Intelligence column worthwhile, too. This month's submission is titled, So Hire an Apprentice.