Machine builders take over the controls

Show your customers how giving you the freedom to specify machine control systems will improve their plant operations through better performance, less downtime, and reduced maintenance costs.

By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

WHEN IT comes to specifying machine control systems, there is a constant battle between machine builders and their customers. Machine builders want to use automation, instrumentation and electrical components and systems optimized for their machines. Customers want to buy machines with control systems defined as standards for their organizations.

Recently, several complementary trends tipped the balance of power in control system specification in favor of the machine builders. This helps them reduce design costs, improve performance, and lessen support costs.

The machine builders’ customers also benefit because they can focus more on operating efficiency, instead of the control system minutiae of each machine. These end users still conduct the manufacturing orchestra, but in many cases they no longer tell the violin players which strings to use.

Similarly, your customers continue to downsize their plant operating staffs. They’re relying more and more on your company for support, and they’re also pushing machine maintenance responsibility away from their skeleton plant staff, and onto your company.

Some of your customers don’t have any staff with automation expertise, and many of them rely on local system integrators for support. Many integrators have experience with a range of control systems, and it’s typically easier to get them (as opposed to your customers) to accept your standards. While end users almost always have some control system standards in place, system integrators make their living working with and integrating controls from many suppliers.

In many cases, end-user companies and system integrators realize that machine builders excel when allowed to specify the control systems. A dramatic example of this was illustrated in A Cut Above the Rest (CONTROL DESIGN, Aug. '05). That article related how a North American, Tier-One automobile parts manufacturer specified stringent and ambitious performance, cost and form-factor requirements for a new fabrication machine. One of its suppliers, Eagle Manufacturing, Shelby Township, Mich., researched the marketplace and found the automation supplier that offered the best control system for the fabrication machine.

Automobile manufacturers have a well-known preference for their own standard control system suppliers, but this time the parts maker relented and allowed Eagle to use an automation supplier that wasn’t on its short list. Eagle’s point was simple: we cannot meet all of your specifications if we use your preferred supplier. The auto manufacturer decided that meeting specifications was more important than using its standard control systems. This decision dovetails with their overall trend of pushing more responsibilities to their suppliers.

Besides performance specifications, many of your customers specify levels of required maintenance support. Another article in the August 2005 issue, Be Everywhere showed how your company can remotely troubleshoot and support your customer’s machine controls. Remote automation system monitoring capability is the key enabling technology that can make support contracts profitable for you and cost-effective for your customers. With a support contract, your company receives periodic payments from your customer, while you provide ongoing maintenance of your machine at your customer’s site.

Remote monitoring allows you to drastically cut costs of support service, routine service calls, and maintenance of customer machines. If remote monitoring is done correctly, cost reduction can be accomplished, while maintaining or increasing service levels.

If your company takes responsibility for machine maintenance, stocking spare parts, and software updates, it makes sense for the end user to give you some freedom with control system specification. Machine builders now have strong cards to play to get their customers to accept their standard control system components.

Customers don’t have the staff to specify machine control system design details, so they instead specify performance and compel you to guarantee the same. It makes sense for you to demand greater freedom in control system specification to comply with their demands.

Customers also don’t have the staff to maintain your machines at their sites, but they insist on decreased downtime. Outsourcing maintenance to your company via a support contract is the obvious answer. Once again, this opens the door for you to insist on the freedom to use your preferred control system suppliers.

The key is to show your customers how giving you the freedom to choose controls will improve their plant operations through better performance, less downtime and reduced maintenance costs.