During the Global Machine Builder Forum at Rockwell Automation's recent 2011 Automation Fair in Chicago, a multinational panel of machine builders touted real-time monitoring and remote troubleshooting to corral the fast-rising costs of after-sales support.
Jim Barry, electrical engineering manager for ixmation North America, recalled the value of remote diagnostics via WebEx when he was in Florida and received a call from a California customer with machine vision system problems. "I pulled out my laptop, connected over my cellular network, and I was looking at live images of the vision system on that customer's floor. Within five minutes I had the problem solved."
Even if he still had to dispatch a field technician, Jim Chapman, electrical engineering manager at Stolle, said at least he's better equipped to address the problem.
Some customers are specific about the data they'd like to access. "We have more customers asking for diagnostic help on things that deteriorate over time," reported Howard Dittmer, vice president of engineering and technology at ARPAC. "Looking at the current draw on shrink-wrap heaters to predict when it might fail is a good example of that."
The panel members also clearly noted there's still a big gap in understanding between the machine control camp and the IT group that's impeding progress.
Barry prefers VPN connections to his equipment, "but the IT group always seems to be concerned with the machine-level data being part of their IT layer," he said.
Dittmer said many ITers don't realize that the machine needs to be able to talk to the world. "They are spending more time blocking activities," he said. "We used to have capacity to email information out from the machine regarding maintenance or supplies, but that is opposed by the IT people. Even when we show them it's not causing them a problem, they're intractable about allowing access."
An audience member asked something that isn't always part of conversations machine builders have about price, given intense global competition that pressures pricing. He asked if there are things for which customers will pay a premium.
"Our customers really value reduction in machine setup time," responded Scott Bivens, engineering manager at Oystar. "That usually means converting over to electronic servos from a pneumatic solution, and some customers are willing to pay more for that."
A single line of responsibility is another area where machine users would pay a premium. "We're installing a large system that has 25 pieces of equipment and we were responsible for integrating it all together," Dittmer said. "Only half of them are our machines. The customer paid a significant premium for us to ensure that all the equipment worked together seamlessly and provided the performance they wanted."