OEM collaboration aids machine control design

Contributing Editor Wayne Labs focuses on how industrial machine builders benefit from long-term commitments with customers, system integrators and suppliers in the March issue of CONTROL DESIGN.

By Wayne Labs

March 2005 cover image Technology plays a big role in bringing OEM, end user, and supplier closer together. The issues that are central to a successful project completion all depend on interpersonal communication. No matter how high-tech your operation might be, it still takes a group of individuals to set up a project, manage it, and get it finished on time.

We sometimes hear industrial OEMs complain that they’re not brought in early enough to collaborate during the design phase. In most cases this can be attributed to all those cases in which customers are shopping for the lowest prices.

Talk to Me
In today’s world of partnering among machine builder, system integrator (SI), supplier, and customer, the climate for collaboration on a project clearly is undermined if the machine builder has to bid against three or four other OEMs. Early involvement in the customer’s design cycle usually reflects a long-standing collaborative relationship between the end user and the OEM.

Randy Wagner, systems engineer, Norske Canada, is responsible for system upgrades to large machines used in the pulp and paper mill environment. He notes that system integrator Franzen has been involved from the very beginning of his company’s design cycle. “Franzen has been very good to us, providing guys on site who’ve been like relief employees for 20 years,” says Wagner. “They’re familiar with our plant and our strategies.”

For machine builders who don’t have in-house domain experience with controls, forming a collaborative alliance with a knowledgeable SI can help the OEM land projects more quickly.

            Integrator FEC Technologies collaborated with a machine builder to design the connector solutions for the control system in order to reduce machine's electrical assembly time and field set up. The company believes that when the SI gets involved right away with planning the controls design it speeds up the entire process, reducing potential design errors, and saving money up front.

Darren LePage, president of FEC Technologies (FEC), York, Pa., says his full-service system integration company wants to build lasting relationships with industrial OEMs, a group that represents 60% of FEC’s business. “An OEM that forms a sole-source relationship with FEC saves time by not having to go out to bid for a SI,” states LePage. “Rather, the SI can get involved right away with planning the controls design for the machine, and if the OEM has to go to the bidding process, the SI will be there to bid as well, speeding up the entire process, reducing potential design errors, and saving money up front.” LePage’s mantra is “attack the quarter costs instead of the nickel profit.”  

Long-standing customers can make the difference. Kevin Uhlig, vice president/general manager at Moore Tool, Bridgeport, Conn., notes that when his company is brought in late in the design cycle with potential customers, his company often drops out of the bidding because the customer has already worked with someone else and Moore would be wasting its time. So, does he have a lot of long-standing customers to compensate? “Absolutely,” Uhlig said. “They have a very good idea of what we do, and it makes everything easier that they know us so well.”

Jim Cummings, president of Total Systems Design (TSD), West Chester, Pa., notes that many end users fail to understand what an SI can bring to a project, sometimes acting as if the OEM or SI is merely another contractor. “Clients who understand the SI’s value actually bring TSD in at the conceptual stage of the design,” says Cummings. “In many cases, TSD is asked to write the user requirement specs because users often don’t have either the time or the ability to define what they really want. They have ideas but don’t know how to put them together—and this is where the OEM can help.”

Understand Customer Needs
Roger Richardson is president of Delta Sigma Corp., Ackworth, Ga., which builds specialized machines for manufacturers and the military. He says that communication is the most important aspect of collaboration between the OEM and users. “While some customers are able to clearly articulate their needs, others have difficulty,” says Richardson. He notes that it’s easy to communicate with a customer such as Lockheed Martin, whose expert engineering staff provides detailed sets of specs. “Such customers discuss and plan their projects internally for six months and thoroughly document every detail,” adds Richardon, “eliminating situations in which the project is half finished, and the customer says, ‘Oh, by the way, can it do that, too?’”

Richardson contrasts his Lockheed experience with customers who aren’t well prepared. “They’ll tell you that you have all the requirements you need,” says Richardson. “We design and build the machine that meets all those requirements and we deliver it. Then they tell us that it doesn’t do this or that. We’ll point out to them that it wasn’t on the list.” Their response, laments Richardson, often is, “I didn’t know it needed to do that.”

Richardson says while some manufacturers understand their process well, they may not know how to build the machine or understand the engineering subtleties, and thus be unable to communicate their needs to the machine builder. “If you need to convert a manual process to an automated process using robots and machine vision, it’s essential to document each and every human step required to accomplish the task, so that each step can be understood in detail by both the customer and the machine builder,” stresses Richardson. “Collaboration is the essence of solving this problem.”

For the end user and the SI or machine builder, taking the risk together is what collaboration is all about. Dan Bickersteth of American Axle and Manufacturing (AAM) has been involved in automating a bin-picking application using a robot and 3-D camera system. As corporate manager of cycle time improvement and automation, he recently hired four SIs to work at different locations on various projects. “SIs have to feel like you’ll take risks with them and they’ll take risks with you,” says Bickersteth. “You have to work with them, provide them the right information to make them—and you—successful. You can’t be hands-off on these projects. You can’t define a project as ‘turnkey,’ give it to an integrator, describe what you want it to do, expect it back in 20 weeks, and have it work without problems. If that’s what you think, good luck. You have to help with some of the development work from the concept stages.”

In the American Axle bin-picking application, Greg Garmann, manager of software solutions for the robot builder, Motoman Inc., stresses the role that communications played in the overall collaborative process. “Motoman software engineers and technical experts worked closely with the software developer, vision hardware supplier, system integrator, and AAM to develop this application. Motoman went on site at the software developer to work out some of the interfacing between the camera and the robot, and even conducted the live demo there. AAM representatives observed the demo, and were provided with a video showing hundreds of parts being unloaded from the wire bin.”

The bidding process and the design phase are co-related and tricky for machine builders—with some degree of risk involved. Luis De La Mora, marketing, international sales for Rovema Packaging, Lawrenceville, Ga., says mistakes made at the onset of a project often are the result of the customer’s wrong assumptions—usually because its internal department tried to determine what it needed. “We would love to get involved from the very beginning, but it really isn’t the norm,” says De La Mora. “Unless you get the project right off the bat, customers are very careful about sharing information because you are competing with several other OEMs. In some cases, we worked with our customers’ marketing departments from the very beginning to develop a new packaging style and, as a result, we are very much involved. But that’s more of an anomaly than the norm. When you win the project, it’s already advanced.”

DON'T BE SHY, ASK              
The Rovema Vertical Pouching Machine system is an example of how OEMs evaluate customer needs and suggest alternative approaches. If the customer says it needs a cereal bagger, the machine builder asks what kind of cereal, what other equipment is involved, what interfaces exist and what needs to be added. That makes it possible to arrive at a better solution.


De La Mora notes that if the customer provides enough of the project scope, it’s possible to evaluate it and suggest alternative approaches. “For example, if the customer says it needs a bagger for its cereal and here are the timings, we can quote a bagger for cereal,” he notes. “But the machine builder also should ask, for example, what kind of cereal is being packaged, what other equipment is involved, and what interfaces exist and need to be added. Then it’s possible to provide a much better solution.”

Reduce Risk
Industrial machine builders need to educate customers about the risks involved at the design phase when early collaboration is important. Matt Quinn, partner at EPIV Vision Solutions, St. Louis, says his company makes sure the customer understands what the risks are if the OEM doesn’t get involved in the design process early on. Quinn cites a $500,000 project that was reduced to $100,000 when the OEM became involved in the design cycle right away, as opposed to having to do R&D after the project was already established. “One way to reduce risks at the front end of a project is to make sure OEMs talk to upper levels of management—not just first-line engineers,” advises Quinn. “Upper-level management usually is more willing to talk to OEMs to find ways of reducing costs.” 

Risk not only is a problem for the industrial OEM, but also is a concern for the suppliers who work closely with OEMs on projects. “As an OEM, you have to understand what risk is,” says Mike Wagner, leader of OEM business development for Rockwell Automation and a machine designer for some 20 years. “Many OEMs are relatively small companies compared to their customers. There’s more than one that has gone out of business because it couldn’t deliver product, or when it delivered, the end result wasn’t what the customer wanted.”

Rockwell Automation, not surprisingly, claims to understand the end user very well, and, as a result, can use this knowledge to predict the mistakes that are going to be made before the OEMs know they’re going to make them. “We have a very clear procedure when working between the end user and the OEM,” says Wagner. “First, the OEM collaborative team forms an alliance with the OEM and does a risk assessment. For example, since fewer and fewer end users are actually managing the project anymore, we evaluate whether the OEM has the ability to manage it. We also consider whether the OEM has a method for developing the specifications for the machine. Does the OEM have a requirements document that specifies what the machines should do?” Wagner says he often finds that the OEM and the customer have different assumptions about what specific machine will do the job for them.

Supplier involvement
Large machine builders with customers around the world hold differing views of suppliers’ roles in the collaboration between OEM and customer. R. A. Jones & Co., Covington, Ky., makes cartoners, pouch machines, beverage and multiwrap machines; supplies robotics; and provides SI services. “Suppliers are generally not part of the project when it deals with its customer,” says Jeff Williams, director of business product development. “When a supplier is contacted, it’s usually because its equipment has a problem. Since our machines go into a production environment, we don’t use any beta-type equipment or software, because the risk is too great.”

There may be other practical reasons for maintaining distance between end user and supplier. One is confidentiality—the OEM must protect his end customer’s confidential information. Hanan Hurwitz, business development manager for Specialty Electronic Products at Danaher Motion, notes that his company’s involvement with the supplier is up to the OEM. “Our group writes a detailed functional spec for the product or feature to be developed, and it’s reviewed by all parties before work actually begins,” he states.

Others agree that most machine builders don’t want supplier involvement. “One of the fundamental things a machine builder or SI does is bring project management experience,” observes Lisa Eichler, manager of channel development at Cognex. “This benefits us as well, because we know the customer has someone qualified doing the work.” In the last year, says Eichler, 40% of Cognex sales had an SI directly involved up front. “While some of the food or consumer goods manufacturers may have a machine vision expert on staff, the majority don’t, and they need the experience of an SI,” she cautions.

The Tools of Collaboration
AutoCAD, SolidWorks, Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Project, WebEx, NetMeeting, Live Meeting, video conferencing, voicemail, e-mail, plain old telephone, facsimile message—all are tools of collaboration most often used in the design phase of a project. What’s missing? How about the good, old face-to-face meeting?

Companies such as DeKalb Molded Plastics, a user of plastic injection molding machines and an OEM to customers that use plastic parts to manufacture a product for their end-customers, can take orders via SolidWorks drawings over the Internet, quote them, build parts, and ship them. That’s good, but DeKalb still values the on-site contacts it has with its system integrator, Maintenance Solutions.

Max Hauser, DeKalb production manager, appreciates the 20-year relationship with supplier Delta Computers and local SI, Maintenance Solutions, which was able to meet and talk about upgrading DeKalb’s machines to handle large parts in various materials. “Some of the part configurations require very close tolerances for injection molding operations,” says Hauser. “Maintenance Solutions was able to improve the control of the machines and do some debugging that the machine OEM had never done to DeKalb’s satisfaction. We’ve since cut scrap by 10% or better.”

Asked what he thought about the collaboration tools he uses with his own customers, Hauser jokingly suggested doing away with voicemail because it interrupts and slows things down. To him, lean manufacturing is good, but when it’s necessary to get changes made in orders, voicemail is too slow, and impersonal. “And e-mail isn’t much better, he states. “Our scheduling department often has problems getting orders out the door because it can’t communicate on a timely basis with customers who don’t answer e-mail and voicemail. This isn’t a fault of the technology, it’s a fault of those who use it.”

Norske’s Wagner finds e-mail to be effective in collaboration because it forces people to sit down, organize their thoughts, and write them in a way that other people understand. For Wagner, this is effective when communicating with engineers at the SI, while face-to-face collaboration is more important when cross disciplines are discussed. “For example, because they don’t speak exactly the same language, systems people and the mechanical project manager should meet face-to-face to get an understanding of the project’s scope,” he believes.

This cross-discipline issue is important enough to Delta Sigma Corp. that Richardson actually gives simple mechanical assignments to some of the EEs and lets mechanical engineers perform basic wiring tasks. “This helps them understand what’s involved in constructing a machine, thus avoiding design problems that might occur had they not some feeling for each other’s turf,” he argues.

SI Dave Stuber, Custom Control Solutions, tells us his company recently completed and launched a successful design project for a new machine concept for Ultra Packaging, Bensenville, Ill. Stuber’s primary design tool is AutoCAD, and he uses it to share drawings with suppliers, OEMs, and customers.

            SPEED COUNTS 

System integrator Binnington Development Corp. coordinated design of a rework of the controls for this slab press, helped by electronic transmission of large documents and drawings, the use of an FTP site to post files rather than printing and couriering to provide better customer support.


CAD drawings can be big files to send via e-mail. Michael Rhodes is business development manager, Binnington Development Corp.), a SI who recently revamped the controls for a Sunds Defibrator slab press for Alberta, Canada-based Millar Western Forest Products, improving press throughput by 10% (Figure 4). Rhodes advises, “In the transmission of large documents and drawings, the use of an FTP site to post files rather than going to the time-consuming and expensive process of printing and couriering has proven to be a real time and money saver,” advises Rhodes. “Any manner of improved communication, be it the use of FTP sites or tools such as PC Anywhere and other web tools, will provide better customer support.”

For OEMs planning expansion of services to foreign countries, person-to-person contact has extra importance, notes TSD’s Cummings. With additional offices in Puerto Rico and Singapore, TSD services several pharmaceutical and biotech companies. “With all the collaboration technologies available, the engineering could be done in the U.S., but in Puerto Rico, for example, manufacturers want their OEMs and SIs right there, and they want their engineering done on location,” adds Cummings. “To a lesser extent, some customers in the U.S. want a local SI in the immediate area to support the project after the installation and through the lifecycle of the system.”

Perhaps one of the more important examples of how the tools have helped a machine builder expand its business is DVT Epic Vision. Matt Quinn says the use of Live Meeting and SolidWorks for conceptual and design phase reviews in the last four years helped his company grow out of regional status to national and international projects. For European projects, Epic does the quoting, definitions and design phase in St. Louis, then builds the equipment. European customers travel to St. Louis for an acceptance test. Then the equipment is sent to Europe, with an engineer to start up the system.

Remote Monitoring and Support
Once an industrial OEM designs, builds, sells, and installs a machine, collaboration still isn’t finished—not if that OEM expects a long-term relationship with the customer. That’s more difficult to do when the OEM and customer are geographically distant, but remote monitoring might be able to help. However, some OEMs have “wired in” remote monitoring functionality to their machines, but those that actually use it—at least to its full extent—are few.

Quinn says Epic has been successful in this respect, too. For several customers, Epic uses the Internet as a remote monitoring and advanced troubleshooting tool when the needs arise. “In the beginning of the project, we make sure that we have accessibility to the system via the Internet,” says Quinn. “Many users look for ways to cut expenses, and this is one way to do it. The customer doesn’t need a technical expert who knows everything about the system. Instead, the customer can call us anytime, and we’ll establish a secure link to take over the control system. Of course, there’s concern about security, but we’ve made the connection extremely secure--with a person at the other end to complete the secure connection. We’ve had great success, especially with organizations that don’t have technical experts on hand.”

Suppliers are pushing Internet-related services for collaboration and as a business model for industrial OEMs and SIs. “Internet-related services are critical, and GE Fanuc facilitates their use through products such as Proficy Machine Edition,” says Paul Scanlon, manager, Automation Solutions, GE Fanuc Automation. “We’ve found that OEMs and SIs who use web services reduce travel costs significantly as it relates to provided services, in some cases more than 60%. With easy-to-use web tools built into automation products, OEMs and SIs have a great opportunity to offer higher value of quick services to end users while reducing costs.”

In practice, many of the machine builders and SIs we talked to tell us many customers are wary that, despite being a real time saver, it may not be secure enough. Stuber has set up machines with LAN connections for Ultra Packaging and other clients, but notes that so far no one has really taken advantage of the remote troubleshooting feature.

Uhlig says he uses PCAnywhere to check up on equipment, but since Moore’s equipment is so specialized, it almost always involves a trip to the customer site. “The one thing the tool does,” says Uhlig, “is allow some investigative work on the affected machine, giving technicians and engineers a heads-up when making a customer visit.”

LePage noted that FEC has been building remote monitoring capabilities into several of his OEM’s machines, and acceptance is increasing. When there is a problem, FEC can connect to the OEM client’s machine for troubleshooting, or the OEM may look at the results and send a technician.