Machine builders, integrators and end users can purchase industrial control hardware directly from a manufacturer, a distributor or an online store. Depending on who you talk to, each has its advantages.
When considering the options, there is not clear winner. In fact, a combined team effort including the manufacturer, distributor and integrator is often the best solution—a collaborated effort is optimal. Who's delivering the hardware (Figure 1)?
Direct from the manufacturer
From a machine builder’s perspective, manufacturers know their products. "The main advantage of buying direct from the manufacturer is the deep product knowledge," says Lyle Rusanowski, CEO at Delta Technology, a custom machine builder in Phoenix. "Going direct usually makes sense when you are buying an end product that will be integrated into a complete system."
Manufacturers feel the same. "Manufacturers are the most knowledgeable on the ins and outs of the product, such as shortcuts, programming and troubleshooting tips," says Vikram Kumar, president at EZAutomation. "Direct support has its advantages since the manufacturer is typically the designer of the hardware, software and firmware of the product."
Although a manufacturer may have good product knowledge, they may struggle with application-specific questions. "Since the manufacturer is mainly concerned with the product, its focus tends to be deep, not broad," says Rusanowski. "Most do not have application engineers that are focused on going broad and applying the products in many applications. If the conversation becomes application-specific, a detailed review of the requirements and specifications is necessary to ensure the products can do it."
However, buying direct from the manufacturer is usually the most expensive choice since there is often no volume to leverage the sale against, cautions Rusanowski. The manufacturer has to cover all overhead through the sale of a small-volume buyer, so, unless your application calls for higher volume, you can usually find lower pricing with distributors.
But the results are mixed across the board. "I’ve had the opposite opinion in certain cases," says says Leon Krzmarzick, senior manager of control engineering at Delta Technology. "Festo’s applications guys have been very good, and they’ve been able to offer us very good discounts. But we’ve never purchased Festo through a distributor. SMC, on the other hand, used to be direct, and now we are getting better pricing through distributors."
AutomationDirect is the perfect example of an online distributor who is able to provide deep discounts because of the volume they deal in, continues Krzmarzick (Figure 2). "And then you have Allen-Bradley, who I noticed has relabeled other manufacturers’ products, and not being cheap, even with distributors," he says. "There’s a little of everything out there."
Sales, support and service by the manufacturer
Keyence is a manufacturer that sells directly throughout the world. Direct sales and same-day order processing has long been the backbone of Keyence’s underlying strength. It also has a large number of sales engineers employed throughout the world, enabling direct, on-site support and consultation to help with the specifying of the correct products.
"The direct sales channel will usually have better knowledge on the product," says David Shillaker, regional director at Keyence. "Information flow from product development through to technical support, training departments to sales engineers is usually better when controlled by a single organization."
When selling direct from the manufacturer, you can understand the market far better, says Shillaker. "This helps you make products that are most suited to customers’ needs," he says. "Understanding your product and customer allows you to explain the benefits more clearly."