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Supply chain sleight of hand

Jan. 28, 2022
How to navigate the physical and digital worlds

In its wake, the lost year of COVID implications has left industry treading water as it awaits calmer waves. Still, the globally shared experience of a pandemic shutdown has brought new tools and new ways of doing business, especially to suppliers, distributors, system integrators, machine builders and end users. The physical world has become more digitalized, in more ways than one.

With trade shows and exhibitions still struggling, suppliers and distributors are taking advantage of digital technologies to help machine builders, system integrators and end users to make informed decisions about automation purchases.

“Video conferencing is here to stay,” says Jeff Mahler, co-founder and CTO at Ambi Robotics. “Informational videos about new products or how to best utilize existing products can engage customers (Figure 1). Live video demonstrations and seminars can create a similar environment where users can ask questions and vendors can form business relationships.”

Also read: COVID-19 pandemic impacts supply chain, Industry 4.0 and 5G

Despite the pandemic’s continuation, in-person visits have been crucial in building trust with suppliers. “We make sure to take all of the necessary safety precautions before these visits,” says Mahler. “We value these visits for their educational purposes, like learning about new offerings and also for the rapport that they build with the supplier.” Often that handshake makes it easier to place a call later and trust that the supplier will be able to get the needed components, he stresses.

“There’s been a big shift to delivering content in digital platforms,” says John MacDougall, manager of industrial channel sales, Phoenix Contact USA. “Phoenix Contact has hosted many digital/virtual trade shows and webinars in the past 18 months to highlight our newest products and solutions. We’ve embraced available technologies to provide the necessary content to make informed decisions.” Fortunately, the available digital tools allow Phoenix Contact to present solutions and provide customers with much-needed options, MacDougall explains.

“We pivoted immediately to digital content production for educational material and other key training materials,” explains Jim Wilmot, manager, Simatic PLC products, Factory Automation business unit, Siemens Industry. “Embracing digital content has a number of advantages. We all miss in-person conferences, but digital video assets such as product walkthroughs, best practices discussions, educational webinars or other topics can build a digital archive that provides immense value to end users for reference and onboarding use.” The cost to produce a small batch of quality content is less than the cost to attend a single conference, notes Wilmot.

“It's all about educating the market,” explains Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development and strategic marketing at Universal Robots. Universal Robots does this in many different ways that include but are not limited to face-to-face meetings at trade shows.

“Our award-winning UR Academy modules reach more than 125,000 users from more than 130 countries, and we currently have 89 brick-and-mortar training centers up and running around the world—18 operated by UR and 71 operated by our network of distribution partners,” says Campbell. “A common denominator for all academy courses is that content is hands-on, interactive, realistic and visual. There’s no ‘death by PowerPoint’ in our classes, as students work directly with the cobot, either in real life or through our free simulator.”

Universal Robots also offer tools that walk end users through all the required components needed for their applications. “As COVID hit, we ramped up our webinar schedule and also started developing virtual events, inviting many of our UR+ partners and integrators to exhibit along with us, offering end users a one-stop-shop for all their automation needs,” explains Campbell.

The business-to-business (B2B) technology world is taking cues from the business-to-consumer (B2C) world, in that organizations want to “try before you buy” and often rely on word of mouth to learn about what’s possible, observes Aric Prost, senior global director OEM at Stratus Technologies. “It’s essential for suppliers and distributors to provide customer use cases and to deliver an experience close to what an end user might experience,” he says.

“It is really easy to become internally focused during these times when travel is restricted and trade shows aren’t running at full capacity,” says Brian O’Connor, vice president, marketing, Aerotech.

“The key to replace face-to-face meetings is the ability to share solutions in a format that is easy to understand and access, whether that be through dedicated micro-sites, specific training modules or videos,” explains Tim Fredricks, channel sales manager, Advantech.

“Nothing surpasses a face-to-face connection to understand and solve problems,” says Jon Towslee, senior director of iFactory sales at Advantech. “This continues to be true in the pandemic/endemic world we are living in. The traditional trade shows as we knew them were starting to fade well before the pandemic hit. Most customers start their research on the Internet and have a large portion of their research and decision-making processes underway even before they contact a salesperson. Making it easier to communicate via electronic means will continue to be the preferred method of communicating going forward as it is faster and more efficient.”

At some point, websites, pure email, text and even video calls fall short of delivering breakthrough solutions to challenging problems, says Towslee. “These will continue to be solved in face-to-face meetings gathered around the whiteboard,” he explains.

Figure 2: The pandemic forced companies to leverage online conferences, podcasts and Zoom meetings to a much higher degree, and people are getting a lot more used to interacting with each other virtually. (Source: OnRobot)

“Our educational webinars are doing very well,” says Kristian Hulgard, general manager, Americas, OnRobot. “The pandemic forced us to leverage online conferences, podcasts and Zoom meetings to a much higher degree, and companies are getting a lot more used to interacting with each other virtually, which is very good (Figure 2). It usually has a positive impact on deployment of the applications, as you might not need to travel out to assist any more, which also dramatically can cut down on deployment time as you don't have to wait for four people to show up, but instead can leverage online monitoring tools and educational platforms to get your robotic system up and running.”

Suppliers need to find new ways to interact with customers to help guide product selection and implementation, says Bob White, technical sales manager, Nippon Pulse. “Utilizing virtual solutions to interact with customers is vital in today’s environment; the pandemic has taught us all how we can find ways to collaborate on all sorts of technical levels without the need to participate in a show,” he emphasizes.

“Though we know it can be a struggle, not seeing or holding a high value product is going to be tough for many engineers. More demo units no doubt will be required for customers to make a higher-cost purchase,” suggests White.

“The result of not being able to meet in person is that things are increasingly moving online,” explains Eric Wendt, director of automation and electrical products for Digi-Key Electronics. “Those who didn’t already have an online presence are moving more digital, and those who already had a digital presence are enhancing the content they have online, whether it’s webinars, whitepapers, product videos or design tools.”

The development of new technology hasn’t stopped, even though things slowed down from a supply standpoint before picking way back up again, explains Wendt. “Sales have changed, and people aren’t necessarily working in offices, but it’s not stopping new things from being developed, so, for distributors and suppliers, it’s imperative for us to use online tools to get the word out,” he says.

“Customers, especially new-generation customers, expect this kind of information be readily available from potential service providers, and many customers no longer expect to get this information from a salesperson sitting in the office,” explains Lance Fuhr, director of channel excellence, Honeywell Process Solutions. “Along with virtual meetings and events, we are investing heavily in how we deliver technical information from our websites and channel tools.”

Figure 3: Prior to the ongoing supply-chain issues, automation engineers were already tending toward a preference of doing a large part of their initial research and product selection on the Web. (Source: Opto 22)

There’s no pure substitute for face-to-face interaction with a supplier or distributor salesperson, but, prior to the ongoing supply-chain issues, automation engineers were already tending toward a preference of doing a large part of their initial research and product selection on the Web (Figure 3), says Arun Sinha, director of business development, Opto 22. “The global pandemic profoundly accelerated this approach, along with new ways of communicating live online like Zoom and Slack,” he points out. “When a customer wants to interact with an engineer, we are able to do that in the method of their choice. Besides traditional email or phone, there are qualified engineers available in real time through online chat or Zoom-on-demand for both pre-sale and post-sale assistance.”

The power of an omni-channel approach, or, stated otherwise, the ability to support customers through the channel that best meets their needs is more important than ever, says Ken Bradley, president, Allied Electronics & Automation. “Throughout the past year or so, there has definitely been an increase in the need for digital engagement of customers,” he explains. “Providing the ability for customers to research, select and test new products online is key to aiding our customers with application decisions going forward. This extends beyond simply having a web platform with exceptional product content; it’s about providing solutions and applications content and tutorials, while also providing the means to support customers one-on-one in a virtual manner with their more detailed requirements. This shift will be carried forward into the future as the pandemic only accelerated what was already happening.”

In 2021, a few trade shows reemerged late in the year, and 2022 shows are being promoted, but the grumblings of new variants have already started the conversations of potential cancellations, warns Brandon Ellis, owner and president of elliTek. “It’s too early to tell if the shows will be allowed to happen. I don’t expect that we will truly know if they will occur until the latter part of Q1 2022. With this in mind, we plan to focus the remainder of our efforts close to home by taking part in regional shows and our own hosted training classes and events,” he says.

“We have created industry-focused landing pages, walk-through guides, legacy upgrade paths and technical notes, as well as dozens of quick how-to videos,” says Brian Jaeger, technical content developer, Maple Systems. “This empowers OEMs, system integrators and end users to make informed decisions by comparing products and to find which solution best fits their needs on their own time.”

Changes in channels

Different distribution channels can be utilized to satisfy specific needs for controls automation in discrete manufacturing machines and production lines.

“We use a direct sales channel approach coupled with sales representatives in various parts of the world,” says Aerotech’s O’Connor. “However, we understand that some customers just want to buy what is available and have the expertise to do the selection, sizing, design and integration themselves. We understand there is a preference in how someone likes to buy automation solutions.”

In the context of product availability in the current climate, many end users and machine builders are turning to large national automation and controls distributors, says Opto 22’s Sinha. “One of their primary value-adds is availability through large inventories on a wide variety of products and brands,” he explains. “Other services include consolidated purchasing agreements and the ability to kit or allocate inventory specific to a client’s needs. By contrast, the value-added services that smaller regional distributors offer are technical expertise, local market knowledge and personalized service. Customers can utilize the channel that best suits their needs.”

Regardless of the preferred channel, a key point is that the relationship between supplier and customer needs to be a partnership, explains Sinha. “OEMs and end users can work closely with their suppliers to share information like product requirement forecasts, impending design changes and strategic initiatives,” continues Sinha. “Likewise, suppliers should be proactive in communicating product updates and enhancements, relevant educational and training content, product end-of-life (EOL) plans and market trends.”

The best point of entry is helping a customer prove their concept for desired communication and efficiency, says Advantech’s Fredricks. “From there, it’s knowing the full scope of what needs to be measured, calculated and reported out and integrating all of these aspects into a full solution,” he explains.

“Because different distributors focus on different markets, we strategically partner with a wide range of distributors that sell into different markets such as packaging, oil and gas, water and wastewater, energy and power, agriculture and material handling,” says Maple Systems’ Jaeger.

“My biggest piece of advice is to understand the strengths of different suppliers and distributors,” recommends Wendt of Digi-Key Electronics. “All distributors and suppliers have something that differentiates them from others, so, for customers, it’s a matter of finding what you need.”

Some companies may specialize in motion products, for example, while others specialize in sensors, explains Wendt. “It behooves customers to ask and find out which suppliers will best fit their needs, so they don’t become stuck in outdated buying habits that may not be as efficient or effective,” he suggests.

“Multiple types of channels are needed to fill the needs of our customers,” says Honeywell’s Fuhr. “System integrators are critical to most customers who have done away with in-house engineering capabilities.” Distributors are needed for new product introduction, ongoing account support and closely aligned supply chain management with the customers, he recommends.

“There is a convergence underway between hardware, software and service,” says Advantech’s Towslee. “A traditional distribution channel that is focused on selling hardware and software should really consider alternative business models where they can create and deliver value with traditional wares wrapped in a service offering. The same holds true for system integrators and machine builders. End customers are looking for the expertise that these folks can provide to help them run their factories better after the hardware and software have been installed and commissioned.”

In the past year, Stratus has seen system integrators play a tremendous role in recommending and implementing automation and control solutions for manufacturers, but, moreover, they are becoming an important source of innovation and long-term success, says Prost. “At Stratus, we’ve therefore developed a deep network of technology partners, value-added resellers (VARs) and SIs who have proven expertise in certain verticals and use cases,” he explains.

ElliTek is being pressed for turnkey automated solutions from both end users and, in many cases, machine builders, says Ellis. “Our expert knowledge of the products we represent allows our customers to utilize us as an advanced extension of their engineering capabilities,” he explains. “We meet them where they are to fulfill our mission of empowering our customers for their greatest chance of success. Both my father and grandfather taught me that, if you simply do what you promise when you promise to do it, there’s no better way to love your neighbor. That’s the attitude that I and our employees work hard to impart each day. If our customer succeeds, we succeed. There’s not much more to say.”

Phoenix Contact is fortunate to have distribution-channel partners that have positioned themselves to provide customer solutions for all applications, says MacDougall. “Whether that’s an AHTD high-tech distributor, a traditional local NAED distributor or a distributor with more of a digital presence, we have multiple channel partners that can provide solutions to support our differing customer needs. Our channel strategy has evolved with the needs of the customer. The U.S. market determines the channel strategy,” explains MacDougall.

“Utilizing AHTD high-tech distributors plays a vital role in advancing customer needs for automation,” says Nippon Pulse’s White. “These organizations provide local engineering expertise and experience that complements the supplier’s and provides value-add services that can ease the burden of both large and small OEMs and end users. Only recently it has become a new trend for a distributor to provide machine build and low-level integration and design to add value to the bottom line. In some cases, the distributor becomes the customer to the represented OEM’s sales channel.”

Ambi Robotics designs and builds machines, and its bottom-line is directly impacted by component cost, explains Stephen McKinley, co-founder and vice president of operations at Ambi. “As such, we’re motivated to close the gap between our manufacturing team and the components of producers,” he says. “However, Ambi is a customer-first business, and the pandemic has shown us how important it is to build strong relationships with distributors that feel the same way and add value by honoring their commitments. A system is only as good as the sum of its parts, and we know that our team extends to include the producers and distributors of all the components that back up our brand.”

About the author: Mike Bacidore
About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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