Your automation buying habits revealed

With lots of options available, nearly 500 readers explain their preferences in a new CONTROL DESIGN reader study on how you research, specify and buy your automation and control products.

CONTROL DESIGN Reader StudyBy Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief


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.

What is Your Machine Builder Industry?
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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).

Meeting or speaking with local distributors as the primary research method was second most cited at 24%, and meeting or speaking directly with the automation suppliers’ technical engineers and product managers was the primary method for 17%.

The breakdown by machine builder segment reveals a few noticeable upward deviations from this norm. Fifty-four percent of the printing and converting machine builder contingent (split 36% direct to supplier sites and 18% to third-party sites) reported they use the web as the primary method, while almost 20% use distributors as their primary search method, and only 8% of the group goes direct to the manufacturers technical people and product managers.

Fifty-two percent (38% supplier sites, 14% third-party sites) of the packaging machine builder segment said the web is their primary means of researching automation products, while 30% still rely on local distributors, and 11% primarily go direct to the suppliers’ technical gurus.

System integrators report that 46% of them (35%/11% split) use the web as their primary method, while 18% count on their distributors, and 21% go direct to the supplier product managers and tech people.

The material-handling OEM segment had the lowest percentage, 32% overall (22%/10% split), naming the web as the primary method. For them, local distribution also was favored by 32%, followed by meeting/speaking directly to supplier technical and product persons at 27%.

The metalworking machine OEMs had the second-lowest percentage, 36% overall (25%/11% split), naming the web as the primary method. For them, local distribution also was the favorite of 36%, with meeting/speaking directly to those supplier technical people and product managers at 20%.

     Who Makes the Decisions?

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Likes and Dislikes
After learning about respondents’ primary, preferred methods for researching and specifying automation and control products, they were asked to evaluate the strengths and/or weaknesses of those initial seven research/specify methods. We gave three choices for rating value: “excellent,” “good,” and “poor.”

Here’s what we hoped to find out. All the choices were likely to have a healthy “good” rating, since they’re legitimate and appropriate information sources. We wanted to see what percentages migrated from good to excellent, and conversely from good to poor.

Even though it wasn’t named as the primary manner of doing research, speaking directly to manufacturers’ tech people and product managers was rated as an excellent method by 46% of the respondents, and good by 51%.

Supplier web sites received the second-best accolades with 27% rating a visit there as excellent. Sixty-one percent offered up a good rating.

Evaluate the Local Rep
The machine-builder breakouts of the data demonstrated some differences in the evaluation of research methodology value.

The local distributor’s overall rating was mirrored by most of the industry segments. The packaging machine builders were the biggest boosters of local distributors, with 22% rating them as an excellent research tool, and 70% rating them as good.

Overall, system integrators viewed local distributors favorably as a research tool (77% excellent or good), but the excellent rating of 19% was offset by 23% of responding Sis rating distributors as poor.
Metalworking machine builders showed somewhat harsher ratings with 11% excellent, 66% good, and 23% poor. The other builder segments were pretty close to the composite.

Among those favorably inclined, these comments are a good overall summation across most of the groups: “Our main target industry is very relationship driven. The follow-up support after design and installation is a very important factor. Good distributor relationships help improve the 'comfort factor' with the end customer.”

Another remarked, “Local distributors provide the basic information and contact with others using the same equipment.” A third added, “I place a certain value on face-to-face communication. Old school.” Finally, “It’s a time-consuming method, but generally I get more information than is available on the web. Also, I can get application specific information.”

Respondents in the critics' corner are largely captured by these comments: “Because most of [the distributors] don’t know all the capabilities of the products they sell, 95% of the time they refer me to the manufacturer anyway.” A second says, “Local distributors are good with the products they offer, but they will likely try to misapply their own product before suggesting a product they don’t carry. They don't usually know their competitor's product well enough anyway.”

Direct Line to the Automation Supplier
The value of speaking directly with supplier company experts (46% excellent, 51% good) was fundamentally the same rating across all the groups. The machine builders in semiconductor, packaging, and printing segments gave a bit higher praise then the composite, rating the value as excellent just as often as they rated it good.

The comments from the large group (46%) rating direct supplier contact as an excellent research method shared several thoughts: “They should know the product inside and out. If they don't, then they lose. If they do, they can be a great help in the final product, efficiency of startup and checkout, etc. I have a good friend who has been able to direct me to exactly the right person to talk with about a variety of issues. The tech guy can really impact the quality and timeliness of a project.”

Another says, “They generally know their own products better than anyone, and they have a history of similar questions from customers, so their knowledge base is usually extensive, especially the technical support people.” Similarly, “You can get a better idea of the limitations of there products,” and “At this level, I have found there is usually some good insight to be found into other methods of design implementation.”

A main reason some of the respondents refrained from an excellent rating—and probably why it wasn’t selected as the primary method for research—was availability of supplier “experts.”

One respondent says, “This is a good way to evaluate the products, because you get the technical expertise necessary. However, these personnel are rarely available, and I’m only able to communicate once or twice a year.” Another has similar thoughts: “Usually provides the best information and has knowledge of upcoming products. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get to this support level,” and “But it's too hard to arrange this.”

Others rating the method as good shared a related thought: “This is more hit-and-miss. Technical competence and, just as important, the ability to deal with customers, varies widely. Finding a tech support person who has a deep knowledge of his product, of process, and who can interface well with his customer is a rarity—a greatly appreciated rarity.”

Value of Product Research
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The value of tradeshows as research and specification tools was lower (10% excellent, 55% good, 35% poor) than any other option provided. This is in keeping with the anecdotal evidence we hear from readers about the declining value of horizontal automation tradeshows. Those who visit their own industry’s vertical tradeshow (IMTS, PackExpo, Converting Expo, ATExpo, etc.) seem to go to do market intelligence, not shop for new automation.

A few deviations from the composite average are notable. The packaging machine builders had the highest regard for tradeshows with 18% rating them as an excellent method, and 53% rating them as good.

The harshest critics were among the metalworking machine OEMs and the semiconductor machine OEMs. Both groups had more than 40% of their respondents call tradeshows a poor value for product research.

Among the comments from those approving of tradeshows’ value, these represent the sentiment: “Tradeshows allow as close to side-by-side comparisons as I can normally get. But sometimes the information put out at a show isn’t always correct or incomplete.” Another says, “It allows me to physically see the hardware.” A third adds, “It’s OK to see many different items, and get an idea what competing suppliers are offering, but it’s not too good for heavy detail.”

Critics of tradeshows’ value saw the problems as time and talent. “Too crowded and busy,” says one. “I don't like to have to compete with others to get a question answered.” A second adds, “You get to see a lot of products, but don't receive too much on the technical side. Also, it’s difficult to choose which shows to go to, and find the time to be away. Many times you just walk through without getting to much information unless there are good technical sessions.”

Internet Independents: A Mixed Bag
We defined independent web sources as those that are non-vendor affiliated, including sites that represent users groups, trade magazine sites, automation communities, online buyers guides, and others.

Sixty percent rated the research and specifying value as good, with the 19% rating this source excellent entirely offset by 21% who rated it poor.

The segment results show wide variation by machine builder industry, and we can best attribute that to an inconsistent understanding of these resources. More respondents skipped rating this resource and said they didn’t have experience with it than any other resource group. This indicates we’ll have to better define it next time.

Of those who had an opinion, 30-35% of the metalworking machine, packaging machine, and machining center builders gave a poor rating to the value, and excellent ratings well below the norm. Conversely, 32% of the material handling system builders found it an excellent resource, as did 37% of the semiconductor machine builders.

“Often provide very useful information,” says one respondent. “However, if the problem is specific to a particular manufacturer it's unlikely you'll find an exact answer. They are good for gaining a 'feel' for how difficult something is to use before making a purchasing decision.”

A second says, “These are great sources for information. These sources usually present the information without the bias of a particular company. This allows me to find comparable products and then compare for function, cost, reliability, etc.”

The critics were quite specific with their disdain. “This can be a good source of tech information, but too often these sites are simply republishing their advertisers press releases.” Or, “[It has] general information that isn't always reliable or fully developed.” A third adds, “Many independent directories of products aren’t up-to date, and are much too abbreviated in their product specs and details.” Finally, “Most articles at non-vendor sites seem to be written by vendors anyway,” says another. “Communities can be a good way for users to exchange tips directly, but the good info tends to be harder to find in the rest of the site."

     Do You Register for Online Information?

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Supplier Sites Fill a Need
As reported earlier, the value of visiting vendor websites to do research is highly regarded (27% excellent, 61% good, 12% poor) by the study’s respondents.

A few deviations from the norm can be noted. Nearly half of the respondents from the printing/converting and semiconductor machine builder groups rated the research value as excellent. The metalworking machine and packaging machine builders were the most reserved in their praise of the value, each handing down a modestly above-average 15% poor rating.

The praise was pretty clear. “The most effective way to find products and services when juggling ongoing projects, the phones, and meetings, says one respondent. “Research at your own pace, on your own schedule.”

Another says, “I get specific data on products and specs, and don't waste time getting the spiel from someone.” A third says vendor sites “are an excellent source of information, especially if they have online documentation such as manuals and other technical data.” Posting .pdf files of manuals and data sheets “is a great service,” adds another. “They’re easy to load on a laptop for availability in the field. When we ship a product, we try to furnish them on a CD to the customer. When a machine has been in service for seven or eight years, it can become impossible to find good info on the devices. Storing info electronically allows them or us to service machines for many years.”

Finally, “I am highly dependent on the vendor's site. I suspect that the better the website the better the company's business nowadays.”

Those who find vendor site research value to be less than ideal expressed thoughts such as these: “There can be tons of information on the suppliers’ web sites. Often it’s difficult to find the specific information you’re looking for.”

Another says, “I’ve found most supplier web sites very generic in nature. I have a hard time trying to nail down the 'specifics' on particular questions. The one advantage is that there is usually a link to the technical department.”

A third says, “I use this to get manuals and technical specs. However, I hate having to give personal information every time I need to access their site.” And finally, “Most are poorly designed and hard to navigate. Also, there is often obsolete information left over.”

Trade Magazines Still Matter
The value of trade magazines as a research tool persists (15% excellent, 72% good, 13% poor) with all the groups. No great discrepancies appeared in the machine segment breakouts. The material handling, semiconductor and rolling mill machine builders valued the trade magazines slightly more with excellent ratings from 18-22%. The system integrators were slightly harder on us because 18% of them rated our research value as poor.

Typical of the positive evaluations: “Useful when articles are about executed projects and how the technology was applied.” Another says, “A good tool to see how others are using equipment in their designs.” A third, “A lot of interviews ask the same questions I would ask, and that's a big help.”

These two seem to sum up what we’ve heard as well: “This is how I learn of most new and improved products. If I have an interest in using a product, then I can go to the non-vendor website for further information. However, I usually go directly to the vendor website for more specifics. I still prefer reading the printed magazine to give my eyes a rest from the PC screen.”

The second adds, “The primary value of a trade magazine to me is as a sampler for what is out there, not for researching details.”

Among those who can do without trade magazines: “I seldom find detailed information,” says one. “Too many articles are advertisements. I always check the author before reading an article.” Says another, “I find it time consuming, I often am bothered by the editorializing in some trade magazines.”

On-Line Tools
We asked which web search engine our study group used the most. Of the 64% of respondents who use such tools, not surprisingly, Google was named by 68%. Yahoo, GlobalSpec, and ThomasNet each were named by about 5% of the responders. In fact, 8% of respondents said they usually search vendor sites, not bothering with global search engines.

We took this a step further to see if what we heard about our industry’s general non-use of online specifier tools was true. A subset of global search, the product specifier tools let users fill in needed physical and performance product specs, and the engine generates a vendor list of possible solutions.

Some 78% said they don’t use them. Of those who said they use them and identified a particular tool, GlobalSpec’s advanced search tools were the most named, but many more simply said they use the spec tools on various vendor sites.

A main reason so many respondents said they don’t use these tools was clear: a quarter of them didn’t even know what we were describing or didn’t think those tools were available for their industries. Another one-third said they simply were unhappy with the results they got when trying them, and many offered reasons, including inaccurate results, an overly time-consuming process, too much clutter among the good results, or that “it’s simpler to use Google.” A few said they weren’t willing to register first before finding out if it was going to help them.

This led nicely to our next question: are our participants willing to first provide their personal and business information by registering in order to use tools or download whitepapers, etc.? This doesn’t appear to be a big problem for our responders, since 73% said they would register.

So, we dug a bit further. When they registered, did they provide accurate information about themselves and their company, or did they just make something up? Again, it’s not much of an issue for them. Eighty-five percent said they provide legitimate information, considering it fair trade to get worthwhile information in return.

Overall Needs
Regardless of how they researched and specified their automation, we asked the respondents to rate the importance of seven influences ranging from price to support to customer compatibility. We then asked how that differed from five years ago. Reliability was chosen first in both cases, but had higher importance today compared to five years ago. In fact, price is the only category that declined in importance, falling to fourth on the list, compared with being second five years ago. Online tech support jumped considerably as an influence, from 4.9 to 7.1, but still ranks last in this listing. The Table below shows the overall result.

Purchase Decision Influences—
Today and Yesterday Ranked by Importance
(10 would be a unanimous vote)


Five Years Ago

Reliability (9.3)

Reliability (8.9)

After-Sale Support (8.2) 

Price (7.9)

Customer Compatibility (7.9)

After-Sale Support (7.8)

Price (7.6)

Customer Compatibility (7.6)

Gain Competitive Advantage (7.5)

Pre-Sale Support (7.3)

Pre-sale Support (7.3)

Gain Competitive Advantage (7.0)

On-Line Tech Support (7.1)

On-Line Tech Support (4.9)