MACHINE BUILDING and magazine building have a few things in common, not least of which is they’ve both been around for a long time. As a result, both disciplines have learned to roll with the punches, and respond with unique, fresh products to help our respective customers deal with changing technological options.
Many of you have told us how the process of researching, specifying, and eventually buying controls, instrumentation, and automation for the machines you build has changed. Gone are the days of relying solely on a local distributor or the bookcase full of supplier catalogues. Even the need to make a pilgrimage to a big automation tradeshow is less important, since vendors now introduce products at all times of the year, not just to make a splash at National Manufacturing Week or ISA Expo.
We had lots of this anecdotal evidence about what has changed, but we realized it was time to get a more comprehensive look at how you’re specifying machine automation these days. The answers would help us better understand how to present certain content, give you a sense of how your shopping habits compare with your peers, and help a supplier or two better understand what you expect from them.
Nearly 500 of you, representing all our machine industry reader demographics, helped out by participating in our study.
You Call the Shots
We asked the study’s participants how much influence they carry in making automation and controls decisions these days. What’s the influence of the customer on that process?
On average, machine builders make the automation decisions for their companies two-thirds of the time, while customers make the decisions about 28% of the time. They say a third-party SI or EPC makes those choices only 5% of the time.
These results vary by machine-builder segment. The semi-conductor industry machine builders say they make the automation decisions more than 90% of the time. The metalworking machine builders make those decisions more than 70% of the time. System integrators say they make those decisions nearly six times in 10. This was similar to machine builders of material handling systems, who make the decisions about automation 56% of the time, while customers decide 41% of the time. The paper industry’s machine builders say they make the choices just a little more than half the time.
How Much Time?
We’re all stretched thin for time, and so we wanted to find out how much time our machine builders devote to researching new automation possibilities. Thirty-eight percent spend no more than five hours each month on product research. Another 35% expend six to 10 hours monthly, and almost 19% spend up to 20 hours.
There wasn’t a significant departure from that distribution in any machine industry segment except for two categories. Among the printing and converting contingent, 80% spend between six and 20 hours each month, although none of them devoted more than 20 hours per month. At the other extreme, 70% of the semiconductor machine builders devoted no more than five hours to product research each month.
Some of the smaller-machine OEMs expressed the same sentiment about time as this one: “Small outfits like ours don't have a large staff to perform research,” he says. “Even with the Internet, it can be extremely time consuming to research application products. Once a useful product is found, it’s usually more practical to use that product in all applications, rather than continually research new products.”
What Are You Looking For?
Armed with information about how much time you spend on research, we also wanted to know the purpose of that research.
Almost 37% of respondents say their research is for active, ongoing projects for next-generation machine automation. About 22% are grazing for alternative suppliers of automation products they presently use, and the rest are researching automation ideas being considered for action or brainstorming for the future. Those percentages were quite representative across all the industry segments.
Finding What You Need?
You might expect that the web would show up as a substantial method for doing research and specification work. We were a little surprised to find that, in our largely conservative Machine Builder Nation, the web was named as the primary method (searching supplier or third-party web sites) by nearly 40% of respondents, the largest percentage reported. Responders to this question were asked to name their primary method from these seven choices: meet/speak with local distributors; meet/speak with the automation suppliers’ tech people; visit suppliers at trade shows; search independent, non-vendor web sites (automation communities, trade magazine web sites); search the suppliers’ web sites; read trade magazines; or other (specified).