Embedded Control

Distribution channels come with many advantages and disadvantages

Can I get a side of expertise with that?

By Mike Bacidore, chief editor

Seeking assistance from a distributor or integrator to develop I&C designs has its advantages and disadvantages. “Some of the advantages a distributor has, versus an integrator, is the breadth of product,” says Ken Bradley, vice president of sales at Allied Electronics & Automation. “In normal circumstances, integrators have had to choose a primary or single supplier partner to support. Distributors can have many different options to present to the customer, which allows the customer to choose the best solution for the application.”

When it comes to control projects, cost is king, adds Bill Dehner, technical marketer, AutomationDirect. “The cost associated with development, procurement, construction and startup phases of any project can quickly overrun the allotted budget without careful attention,” he says. “Sometimes bringing in outside expertise is necessary, even if it will drive up the expense, but performing as many of the required tasks as possible in-house can help alleviate costs.”

Using in-house personnel can also save time. “Since they are already familiar with site policies, processes, fault history and equipment currently in use, in-house personnel will have less of a learning curve, as opposed to outside parties unfamiliar with your operation or not up to date with previous modifications,” explains Dehner. “Security is always a major concern and bringing in outside assistance can create major security threats such as cyber attacks from compromised third-party PCs or the loss of proprietary information.”

For most any industry, end users usually are best at understanding their specific application challenges and are successfully working directly with suppliers to develop automation and control solutions (Figure 1).

“Distributors who have broad product offerings are certainly in an advantageous position, as it pertains to their abilities to offer a variety of solutions and have products readily available from inventory to meet customer needs,” explains Bradley. “The specialized distributors can become more of an expert from a technical perspective, as they are typically focused on a much smaller number of suppliers and products.”

Online suppliers realize they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to in-person support. “To alleviate that, online suppliers must go the extra mile to be sure customers can find the answers they need quickly and easily,” explains Dehner. “This can be accomplished many ways, including user-generated quotes, sample programs, customer reviews, recommended items, extensive help files, configuration tools, upfront pricing, free technical support, real-time stock availability, in-depth documentation, online training videos, how-to videos and online forums.”

Online suppliers can offer most of these features, along with the actual Web store, anytime—24/7/365, says Dehner. “Online retailers also have huge warehouses of products that allow them to keep inventory levels at a prime level and products ready for immediate shipping, minimizing problematic lead times,” he explains.

State of Technology Report: Industrial Networks

Lost expertise

“Customers and suppliers are losing very valuable resources at staggering rates because of retirement,” explains Allied’s Bradley. “Obviously, it is extremely challenging to replace these knowledgeable resources that have the storied past of products and designs. This opens up an opportunity for distributors to extend their value by providing enhanced design tools and technical capabilities, with digital platforms representing the best opportunity to scale such capabilities.”

Sometimes though, machine builders and end users go directly to the source for their automation and control needs, bypassing the expertise that may be available. “This is a preference more than a requirement, in my opinion,” says Bradley. “When customers can get the supplier to engage directly, their hopes might be to reduce costs by not having a distributor in the middle.”

What happens online …

“There have been many design programs developed in the past decade to assist customers with their new designs,” explains Allied’s Bradley. “These range from simple configurators to programs that you can use to build an entire control system. These software programs are tailored to meet the needs of control applications.”

AutomationDirect recognizes the need to support end users, explains Dehner. It offers convenient online tools including:

  • PLC selector for online suppliers with multiple PLC options
  • PLC configurators to help customers configure the hardware needed for the chosen PLC
  • servo selector
  • ac motor selector
  • timing belt and pulley selector
  • gearbox selector
  • field I/O configurator
  • light curtain selector
  • soft starter selector
  • pneumatic component selector for valves, cylinders and grippers
  • immediate, online quotes
  • online comparison, allowing customers to compare specs of many selected products
  • customer product reviews
  • product overview and how-to videos.

Interaction attraction

“Distributors provide a customer with resources to assist them in their ongoing designs via field sales personnel and technical support,” explains Allied’s Bradley. “Utilizing distribution in this manner provides a customer access to hundreds of supplier product lines and is much more effective than taking them on independently.” Where necessary, a distributor is able bring the supplier into the conversation to offer additional expertise around specific products and/or capabilities, he says.

“As opposed to local distributors, online suppliers have direct interaction with many more customers, from all over the country or world, from a variety of industries, all with different needs and requests,” explains AutomationDirect’s Dehner. “For online suppliers offering free tech support, their support personnel have dealt with countless inquiries and most likely have firsthand experience solving any issue.”

Some online suppliers, such as AutomationDirect, also publish the customer feedback they receive, and these reviews can assist other end users or machine builders who may have similar concerns. “Online forums are also a great place to find answers, especially when the supplier’s engineers, software developers and longtime customers are active on it,” says Dehner.

“Distribution is a wonderful solution for customers when leveraged appropriately across the design, build and maintain lifecycles,” says Bradley. “Long-term designs and builds that have many components requiring complex coordination are right in the distributor sweet spot (Figure 2). Likewise, the breadth and depth of a distributor’s stocked offer provides a strong value for the maintain portion of the lifecycle, as well, as this provides immediate access to products needed to keep systems up and running. The key to leverage is partnering with the right distributor that you have the most in common with.”

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