Build to last

This article looks at how machine builders and their suppliers view total lifecycle costs associated with automation hardware and software, with the focus on reducing costs while still maintaining performance.

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Build to LastBy Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor


Every automation component you buy for your machines has costs associated with it. The most obvious are upfront purchase and installation costs, but maintenance and support costs can dwarf these upfront costs.

Similarly, the software that runs your machines has multiple costs. Software costs have an additional wrinkle because you often have the option to write your own software instead of buying a packaged solution.

In this article, we look at how machine builders and their suppliers view total lifecycle costs associated with machine automation hardware and software. The focus is on reducing these costs while still maintaining sufficient performance.

The Customer Counts
If your task was to build a functional machine you could sell cheaply and forget, then only the upfront purchase and installation costs would matter. Maintenance and support costs would not factor into your decisions because these costs would be absorbed by your customers.

In the real world, it’s the rare machine builder that has the luxury of passing all maintenance and support costs on to its customers. Instead, customer needs and wants are a key driving factor when purchasing automation hardware and software.


     FIGURE 1: 24/7 FOR 20 YEARS
  Triangle Packaging

For its vertical form, fill and seal machines, Triangle wants only rugged components that can stand up to industrial use 24/7 with a 20-year target lifecycle.

Because customer needs vary greatly, they must be evaluated for each market served. “In our market, upfront cost is third on the list,” says Steve Bergholt, chief engineer electrical/electronic for the Triangle Package Machinery Co., Chicago.

Triangle makes vertical form, fill and seal baggers, scales, and cartoners (See Figure 1). As is the case with many packaging machines, performance and uptime are critical. “We only want rugged components that can stand up to industrial use 24/7 with a 20-year target lifecycle, and this is the number one factor for purchase decisions,” adds Bergholt. “We build relatively small quantities of each machine. The installation cost easily can be more than the part itself, so installation cost is second on the list.”

Another machine builder seconds Bergholt’s comments. Like Triangle, Kliklok-Woodman, Decatur, Ga., builds packaging machines—in this case high-speed automated packaging machinery for vertical form, fill and seal, and paperboard cartoning applications (See Figure 2 below).

Tom Pool, Kliklok’s manager of electrical engineering, shares his thoughts on lifecycle costs. “We put more emphasis on maintaining and supporting the product lines for the long term,” says Pool. “That’s not to say we don’t consider upfront cost, but I estimate we weight total cost of ownership about 70%, versus 30% for lowest upfront cost.”



This Kliklok-Woodman vertical form-fill-seal bagmaker produces 100 bags-per-minute and uses servo controls on all motion axes. The company says total cost of ownership heavily outweighs upfront costs in its component choices.

Pool says Kliklok has a responsibility to properly support its customers by considering lifecycle costs. “When we design a machine, we do so as if we were going to be the end user,” says Pool. “If a part becomes obsolete prematurely, it becomes our responsibility to find a suitable replacement. This activity cuts into our normally planned activities, which are much more enjoyable from an engineering point of view. Quite frankly, I hate obsolescence. From our point of view, we see an increasing rate of change in technology and find that the lifespan of automation, instrumentation, and electrical components is getting shorter, making it harder to support our legacy machines.”

Headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., MicroComponent Technology makes strip test handlers for final testing of semiconductor devices (See Figure 3 below). The company also finds that maintenance and support costs matter. “We put very little emphasis on getting the lowest upfront cost,” reports Richard Sidell, CTO at MicroComponent. “We look first for functionality to meet our requirements, then for long service life with minimal service requirements, and then for ease of setup and use.”

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