Dwindling automation staffs open door for supplier help

July 20, 2016
Service trumps price and performance when selecting a supplier, particularly when redesigning a complex machine’s automation system.
About the author
Dan Hebert is a contributing editor for Controland Control Design

The automation hardware and software landscape has changed drastically over the past few decades, causing many machine builders to reevaluate relationships with their suppliers. These new relationships often result in the machine builder placing a much higher value on service than pricing and specifications, in many cases due to the similarities among available automation hardware and software products.

In the past, most end customers told the machine builder which automation hardware and software brands to use, and the machine builder was forced to buy from these suppliers. But now, many customers are instead specifying performance requirements and giving the machine builder more discretion when it comes to supplier selection. Customers do this to garner lower prices, faster delivery and better support from machine builders.

With this newfound freedom to select automation hardware and software, many machine builders are taking a fresh look at their suppliers and often finding substantial similarities among their hardware and software products.

More alike than different

When the first PLC was introduced back in the 1960s, it was truly a revolutionary product, and machine builders adopting this innovation leaped ahead of those still using relays and timers. In a similar fashion, a new PC-based HMI was a quantum leap over existing offerings when it was launched back in the 1980s.

But as the automation hardware and software market has matured over the past few decades, such groundbreaking innovations and quantum leaps have necessarily decreased, which is a characteristic of any mature market, whether it be automation or automobiles.

This has led to a high degree of commoditization in the automation marketplace. It is increasingly difficult for suppliers to separate themselves from each other based on features and performance as one micro-PLC is pretty much like the next. Pricing has also converged to a large extent, with many suppliers offering very similar products at comparable prices.

Given this state of affairs, machine builders are no longer selecting automation hardware and software based on features or performance, and they are instead increasingly judging them based on service.

But, at the same time as automation products are becoming commoditized, the opposite is occurring in the market for machine-automation professionals, who are becoming more scarce and valuable by the day. Machine builders live with this reality and know how hard it is to find the automation professionals they need. So, they often operate with skeleton staffs, with just enough personnel to produce machines and support them, but not enough to improve existing designs.

These trends are intersecting to change what machine builders need from their suppliers. In the past, delivering innovative products at a fair price would win the sale for the supplier, but now the package must also include a high degree of service to supplement skeleton staffs, particularly when it comes to redesigning machines. Automation products may not be improving as rapidly as in the past when relays gave way to PLCs, but it’s still necessary to update machine automation systems on a periodic basis to remain competitive.

Out with the old, in with the new

So, you can’t put it off any longer; it’s time to update your machine’s automation system. The PLC you so carefully selected 10 years ago was the best on the market at the time for your application, but no longer. Same thing goes for your old PC-based HMI, which is no longer the best of breed and can probably be replaced by an HMI running on an embedded platform that will provide better performance at half the cost.

But how do you do it? Your workday is consumed with building new machines and supporting existing ones at customer sites. You can’t hire the right person to come in and redesign your machine’s automation system due to a number of factors. You don’t have the time to find this increasingly scarce automation professional, and even if you did find the right person you couldn’t afford to keep him or her on board after the redesign project. So, you turn to suppliers, asking them to help you with your redesign.

This completely changes your relationship with your supplier. Instead of just buying products off a spec sheet, you’re demanding a much higher level of service. You not only want them to help you to redesign your machine, you may also need them to prototype critical areas of machine operation, such as coordinated motion control.

An alternative is to hire a system integrator and pay for the redesign services you need, and this is the route many machine builders choose. But instead we’ll assume you’d rather work directly with suppliers and examine the best way to implement this approach.

Getting good service for a redesign

The first and most important step to getting good service for a machine-automation-system redesign is selecting the right supplier. Because the supplier will be providing a high degree of service in addition to products, and because it’s likely that one can get similar products from more than one supplier, service becomes the factor separating one supplier from another.

Given the similarity among automation products in terms of features and performance, it can be tempting to judge solely on price. This is often the best approach when buying a single component with well-defined specifications or for a very simple redesign, but usually not the best method when redesigning a complex machine. This is particularly true when the machine builder doesn’t have spare automation professionals hanging around waiting to perform the redesign, which few do.

The machine builder should pick a few suppliers, let’s say three, able to supply the most important components of the new automation system including the HMI, the main controller and key auxiliary items such as servo systems. Each supplier should be asked to present its proposal to assist with the redesign of the automation system.

The machine builder must take particular care to not only evaluate the scope of the proposed services, but also the supplier’s project team. Suppliers like to promote the capabilities of their companies. But companies don’t do projects; people do. And having access the right people makes the difference. A supplier can have the world’s foremost motion control expert on staff, but if that person isn’t on the project team, where’s the advantage?

There is an inherent conflict at this stage of the process—one the machine builder needs to realize and manage. Suppliers make their money by selling products, and they will want to minimize the time spent providing services. On the other hand, many suppliers will provide a very high degree of service to become the main automation vendor for a machine builder.

Honesty is the best policy when navigating these waters. Machine builders should be realistic and upfront when making promises of future business to entice the selected supplier. By the same token, the supplier must be clear as to what volume of free service they intend to provide if selected and how much it will cost if the service required exceeds the limit.

Suppliers are often the best source for assistance when redesigning a complex machine. A machine builder choosing to go this route must change its supplier selection criteria, placing a higher value on service and expertise, instead of just focusing on product performance and pricing.

Homepage image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

About the Author

Dan Hebert | PE

Dan Hebert is a contributing editor for Control and Control Design.

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