Shades of Gray

Nov. 1, 2002
A machine that provides above-average uptime is a huge strategic marketing advantage

Last month, I attended a briefing on a nicely conceived, integrated logic and motion control solution that includes standards-based programming sitting on Windows NT with a real-time kernel, has a highly intuitive configuration software, full compatibility with standards-based networks, and offers I/O simulation capabilities.

What major automation vendor do you think I might be talking about?

I can tell you it's very scalable, has a high degree of platform independence, also provides some analog variable control for temperature and pressure functions, and has an extensive library of specific motion control functions, too. Would that help identify the company I'm talking about?

Finally, I can tell you it's been designed for OEMs that build packaging, plastics, printing presses, converting equipment, and woodworking machines, among other complex motion applications.

Now what do you think? No doubt at all, huh?

Actually, I'm pretty sure if I asked 100 machine builders this question, some would say I was talking about Rockwell Automation, another bunch would think this was a description of Siemens Energy & Automation, and the rest would think this fits the profile of a Schneider Electric, Bosch-Rexroth, GE Fanuc, Parker Automation, Omron, or other automation supplier that has been working hard to represent itself as a solutions provider.

Listen, if I was asked that question, I'd just be guessing what company it really represents.

And there's the rub. The products all look and sound alike, they all use the same hot buttons, and they all claim to do the same things--except that they do it better than anyone else's does, of course.

The claims would be pretty valid, too, because all the software is getting easier to use, the increasing availability of function modules hugely reduces programming time, interoperability--at least among small alliances of suppliers--is tighter, and the communication power of devices with controllers and with factory networks increases every year.

So, as an OEM moves to its next-generation control system, how does it choose? On price? Strictly on relationships? Brand allegiance?

Well, based on what we're hearing, I think there's a good way. Maybe not the best for everyone, but it will help.

The differentiator comes from two factors, and both are related to the one thing you tell us over and over again is paramount these days: machine uptime.

A machine that provides above-average uptime is a huge strategic marketing advantage. Not just the uptime that defines a machine humming along in the middle of a run. That's one of the things almost everybody can give you.

The uptime opportunities are in startup and changeover. If you sell multiple machines into a factory, the sooner you get installed, debugged, and running, the sooner your customer makes money. Make the automation vendors show you exactly how their solution helps you do that. If they can't, move on.

Your customers also tell you that the nature of today's business environment means they're running more products with shorter runs on the same machines. They need the flexibility to change over bottle sizes or molds or recipes or web sizes quickly and easily, so they can be running again in the blink of an eye. Challenge an automation supplier to show you how he's done this before. If he can't, move on.

It's not to say you should ignore the rest of the automation details. Clearly, you can't. But don't go nuts trying to find huge, company-altering differences, because it's unlikely that you will.

By the way, the company is Siemens Energy & Automation. That was a description of SiMotion, a motion-control package that will compete head-on with other high-profile concepts such as Rockwell's Kinetix initiative. It's worth a look, and we'll tell you more as we find machine builders who are using it.

Meanwhile, keep thinking uptime.

E-mail Joe at [email protected].

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