One Size Fits None

Global Markets Demand Tailored Automation Systems. How Much Customization Is Enough? If left to their own devices, automation professionals at machine builder companies would use one automation system worldwide.

By Dan Hebert, PE, senior technical editor

They would select automation components that featured the best performance, that were easy to implement, and that were simple to support.

If left to their own devices, those machine builder’s customers would demand each machine builder totally conform to their own regional and corporate standards. They would demand the same price, delivery, performance, and support for their custom regional automation system as promised for the machine builder’s standard worldwide automation system.

In the real world, machine builders and their customers must compromise. The result often is a machine automation system that, while not ideal for either, is acceptable to both.
Deciding how much customization is right for each regional market is a balancing act that has to take into account the advantages and disadvantages of standardization versus customization.

One Size Fits All?

There are obvious benefits resulting from standardizing on one global automation platform throughout an entire machine line. “The advantages of one design are cost savings through efficiency during the manufacturing process and intimate familiarity with the product by all employees within the company,” says Ron Karpinski, electrical designer with Marchant Schmidt, Fond Du Lac, Wis. Marchant Schmidt provides equipment and services for the food and dairy industries.

Megtec Systems, DePere, Wis., supplies splicers, dryers, and oxidizers for web offset printing, web coating, packaging, paper, tissue, and other industrial markets. “Machine builders face high costs to train staff and provide software for automation systems,” observes Rick Lehman, electrical engineering leader at Megtec. “There is a great savings when only one system needs support and management of upgrades and version changes. Volume discounts based on worldwide purchasing agreements also can be negotiated. Spare part stock is reduced greatly, and the staff engineers only have to be trained on a single system.”

Another machine builder seconds Lehman’s opinions. “Standardization always is more economical,” claims Rodrigo Sanchez, vice president and director of North and Central America for Masipack ( Masipak manufactures machines for vertical and horizontal packing in the food and the home, health, and beauty industries. “Reduced inventories, standardized methods and documentation, and a more efficient maintenance program can be better achieved with a single automation platform.”

Volker Klocke, project manager for software and HMI systems at GL&V USA ( in Lenox, Mass., sees another advantage of worldwide standardization. GL&V manufactures paper machine winders. “Choosing a single standard automation system lets a machine builder realize the unique benefits of the chosen hardware,” relates Klocke. “Improvements are easy to implement—they can be tested directly on the target.”


Standard Worldwide

1. Can negotiate volume discounts with automation vendors
2. More efficient design processes based around one automation platform
3. Less training required than with multiple systems
4. Fewer spare parts to stock
5. Easier to manage version changes and upgrades
1. Standard vendors know you are locked in and may take advantage of the situation
2. Can limit market share because some customers will refuse your standard
3. Local support can be limited
4. Standard may be too costly for some markets
5. Standard system may not comply with local regulations
Standardizing on one automation system can give a machine builder the luxury of focusing on improvements. “A standard machine design allows employees to narrow their focus and become experts,” observes Dave Christman, principal electrical engineer at Pneumatic Scale. “Once the basic machine features are established, more time is available to add enhancements and improve machine performance.” Pneumatic Scale, located in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, makes fillers, cappers, can seamers, roll-through labelers, and centrifuges.


Using one automation system lets machine builders focus on development and performance, believes Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff Automation. “The perceived advantages of multiple systems based on regional demands are short-lived,” he says. “The customer gets a machine it thinks will be well-supported by the local automation supplier, but the local supplier doesn’t have an in-depth understanding of the machine. Service from the machine builder also is problematic because its service people usually are less familiar with the special regional machine.”

Consider this, says Harris, “Would Toyota have succeeded in the U.S. if it had put a GM transmission in its U.S. market cars because local dealers, garages, and mechanics were more familiar with GM transmissions?”

Does One Size Fit None?

All well and good, but from a customer’s perspective and often from the machine builder’s outlook, standardization can result in a one-size-fits-none outcome.

“Some customers will not accept an automation system they have not used,” says Pneumatic Scale’s Christman. “Some automation components might not be supported in all geographical regions worldwide, and the standard design might be too costly in some countries.”

Automation engineers usually are not directly responsible for revenue, but they understand that rigid standards can limit sales. “Standardization can limit your market-share potential to those willing to accept your standard design, and pose possible difficulties in areas where your standard components are difficult to locate, and create resistance from your customers to things very different from what they are used to,” observes Marchant Schmidt’s Karpinski.

Klocke of GL&V also is concerned about customer acceptance and local support. “Other issues to consider are multi-language support, imperial and metric measurement systems, local expertise and support, and certifications such as CE/TUV/ISO,” he cautions.

Megtec’s Lehman also looks at drawbacks from the machine builder’s point of view. “Standardizing increases risk if the chosen vendor cannot meet our demands,” he says. “Suppliers also might be less inclined to provide competitive pricing and additional support if they know we are single sourcing.”

Customization a Better Fit?

Customization provides a better answer to customer needs, but at what cost?

“Because no one automation system truly is supported globally, having multiple systems enables a company to have support in each geographical region,” says Lehman. “Being able to support multiple automation systems enables machine builders to garner a wider variety of customers.”

Karpinski adds, “Multiple designs broaden your client base by including regional preferences and standards, expanding the knowledge and experience of your employees, and possibly exploring new components and techniques that could carry over to other designs or products.”

Customization can be required for compliance with hazardous area regulations. “U.S. standards (ANSI/ISA 60079-X), Canadian standards (CAN/CSA E60079-X), and European standards (EN 60079-X) all are based on IEC 60079-X with national differences,” says Paris Stavrianidis, general manager of FM Approvals at the FM Global Group. “A common product for all those markets isn’t a reality because of differences in installation practices. Many U.S. and Canadian installations still use the traditional two-division area classification system instead of the IEC-based three zones, making IEC products unacceptable.”

Don’t Go Custom Crazy

A little customization is good, but too much of a good thing might not be. “Global customization requires more time and most likely more employees,” opines Christman of Pneumatic Scale. “Plus, the cost of development and support increases because systems are non-standard.”


Custom Regional

1. Can provide system that has best local support in that region
2. Not locked out of any regional market
3. Multiple custom systems expand knowledge and experience of your employees
4. Experience with multiple systems gives more tools to handle different applications
5. Allows compliance with hazardous area  requirements for each region worldwide
1. Requires more time and more human resources
2. Needs more investment in support  software and hardware
3. Making one design safer than another can cause legal problems if an accident occurs
4. Spare part stocking is more expensive
5. Hard to match right staff with each custom system in each locale
Karpinski seconds some of Christman’s opinions and adds his own caveats. “More training is required to be familiar with all designs, more components must be stocked, and caution taken to ensure one design is not safer than another, as legal issues could arise,” he cautions.


Not only is staffing more expensive, it can be hard to find the right people. “Customizing for local markets makes it hard to find properly trained staff for the work in the particular locale,” concludes Lehman. “There also is a much higher cost to maintain spare parts and keep up on software and hardware upgrades. The cost of training a staff on multiple automation systems is extremely high and outweighs most advantages of using multiple systems.”

Compromise Required

Machine builders want global standardization and their customers want regional customization, so compromise is necessary. “Features required by customers in one region might be insignificant to users in another area, so there is a balance to be struck,” says Andrew McCauley, vice president of marketing at Danaher Motion. “Drives and controls tend to have more regional differences than motors. Drive and control component size, shape, connector type, connector location, wire terminations, and voltage requirements all can have a significant impact.”

What works well in the U.S. might be unsuitable for overseas. “Safety requirements will drive different needs for safety functionality and cost in different regions,” explains McCauley. “Low-labor-cost regions often prefer a machine with less capital content, even if more workers will be needed to operate the machine.”

If customers want customization, why not let them drive it? “The ideal automation system would meet all applicable regional standards and permit configuration,” observes Mark Kenyon, product marketing manager for ABB Low Voltage Drives. “The OEM would build one global product to 95% completion and then configure the remaining 5% to regional differences and customer preferences.”

Customizing the network instead of the controller and the I/O is another likely compromise. “Electrical substructure such as the I/O systems can accommodate regional communication networks such as EtherNet/IP, Profibus, or CC-Link just by changing a network interface module without replacing the controller and the I/O hardware. This lets the machine builder provide a regional control system without extensive redesign,” says Beckhoff’s Harris.

It’s difficult to produce an off-the-shelf design that meets all standards and is universally accepted, observes Craig Torrance, services sales manager for Pilz Automation Safety. “But significant advantages can be gained by thinking about machine automation system design as a modular-platform-based process,” he says. “A machine builder should have a suite of possibilities to offer the customer. Each platform should be of a proven design and not completely reengineered for each customer. The machine builder can take each module of the automation system such as motion, safety, control, and visualization and have two or three different platforms for each.”

The ultimate goal, concludes Torrance, should be modular automation components and platforms with a common overall design, flow, and feel.



Machine Builder Sticks to Its Standards

Remmele Engineering designs and builds custom automated manufacturing systems. “Our machines generally are one-of-a-kinds built to meet unique manufacturing requirements for new products with worldwide markets,” says Tom Olin, control engineering supervisor for the Automation division of Remmele. “Our largest market is life sciences and our customer base includes the top 100 worldwide product manufacturers.” Olin says the typical price tag of a Remmele-supplied system can run $1-15 million with the automation component of the engineering and purchased hardware totaling about 20% of the value.

Its machines are customized for each application, but Remmele sticks with a standardized approach. “We find no advantage in multiple automation system designs,” says Olin. “Customers pay a hefty premium if they require a different manufacturer’s control system. At present, 90-95% of our customers accept our Rockwell Automation solution.”

Remmele’s reasons for choosing a single automation system:

  1. The hardware and software offerings can meet the requirements of 99% of our applications. 
  2. The hardware and software offerings are the preference of at least 70% of our customer’s worldwide. 
  3. Even though each machine is unique in nature, large portions of the hardware design and numerous standard software modules can be leveraged from project to project. 
  4. The ControlLogix platform with integrated motion control programming integrates well with the complexity of our systems. 
  5. The family of operator interfaces meets a majority of our requirements, including those for 21 CRF Part 11, data collection, and interface to SCADA systems. 
  6. The controller and HMI families of products integrate very efficiently and effectively with machine vision, robotics, various types of lasers, various types of welding equipment, and other special types of automation support equipment. 
  7. Technical support is superior. We tend to be among the first OEMs to try new products or use existing product to the bare limits of their specifications. Between vendor and distributor, we have support from two dozen technical resources available to us 24/7 as needed.