Machine builders share lessons learned at AutomationXchange

May 14, 2006
Preparation cuts though baloney. That’s the basic theory and strategy behind CONTROL DESIGN’s second annual AutomationXchange, which gathered 26 machine builders and 22 control and automation suppliers on May 7-10 in Carefree, Ariz., north of Scottsdale.

Though it brings together buyers and sellers like a tradeshow, the similarities instantly end there. AutomationXchange slices away all the time-wasting distractions of traditional trade events, conferences, and retreats by pre-interviewing all of its participants. This lengthy process allows organizers at CONTROL DESIGN and Minneapolis-based VerticalXchange to carefully match the specific project needs of individual machine builders with the most appropriate solutions, capabilities, and services of particular suppliers. Much of this vetting is done by Dan Hebert, CONTROL DESIGN’s senior technical editor, who is a longtime engineer and former automation manager for a machine builder.   

“These are very focused discussions because the vendors know ahead of time what you’re looking for, and so they can focus on it,“ says Joe Brancaleone, engineering manager for software controls at Battenfeld Gloucester Engineering. “We had another successful year with a good mix of vendors and new contacts.“

“It’s like speed dating for automation.“

The pre-screening process begins with organizers asking builders about their active project needs. These requirements are then matched to potentially useful suppliers, and the builders are presented with a list of vendors they can choose to meet with or not. Once the builders pick their suppliers, 50-min meetings with are scheduled to occur during AutomationXchange. The suppliers prepare by gearing their presentations to meet the expressed needs of each builder with whom they’re scheduled to meet. Most vendors even interview their builders before travelling to the event.

“We were able to e-mail and contact our machine builders ahead of time, which allowed us to really fine tune our subsequent presentations,“ says Marcia Gadbois, business development vice president at InduSoft. “Ingersoll Production Systems even sent us screenshots and other data about their project, which allowed us to show them what their application would look like running on our software. We also took photos of Bosch Doboy’s packaging machines, and created a presentation showing their equipment running on our software too.“

Jeff Klinger, Ingersoll’s chief controls engineer, confirms he sent InduSoft screenshots of the HMI software his company uses in its transfer machines that help build diesel engines blocks. “They developed screens just for our application, and that made it a lot easier to consider their products and solutions,“ says Klinger. “This was an awesome event because we can get away from the office, but still focus efficiently on what we’re trying to accomplish. We were totally impressed last year and this year because AutomationXcange gives us access to the upper-echelon, VP-levels of both existing and new potential suppliers. This gives us a higher-level perspective because VPs can look at their company’s entire product range for solutions for us. Back at home, we’re usually just talking to local distributors, who usually have a narrower view of what they think we need.“

Once they arrive on site at AutomationXchange, the suppliers set up in individual houses at Carefree Resort & Villas. The builders are then escorted to their scheduled appointments by AutomationXcange and CONTROL DESIGN staffers in golf carts.

“Taking the time to put together a higher-level program that brings us quality customers and projects works well for us and our products,“ says Karen Armsstrong, sales director for Advantech North America. “AutomationXchange delivered exactly what they told us it would. We had 12 meetings, including eight builders that helped us prepare with project schematics, and had pre-meetings via e-mail and phone with the OEMs on their specific application needs. This let us tailor our presentations, and target them exactly to what each builder was seeking. Just being able to meet with high-level controls managers and engineers, who come with projects and are ready to talk details, collapses what would otherwise be a six-to-nine-month process for us into a very short time. This was the best event we’ve done in the past 10 years.“

At the end of their joint appointments, the builders and suppliers usually make a list of action items and set up follow-up meetings. “Everyone is generally pretty tired of tradeshows and being Power Pointed to death. This is very personal, targeted, and even relaxed. We may look at actual products in a follow-up meeting, but it’s important before that to go beyond the widgets, find out how the supplier’s company operates, and meet people we don’t normally meet,“ says Scott Millar, control systems engineerng manager at Bradbury Co.

Besides its core of builder-supplier meetings, AutomationXchange also allows participants to meet with CONTROL DESIGN’s editors, other Putman Media staffers, counterparts from other machine builder companies, attend a few, broader technology presentations, and even set up some added meetings onsite. In the future, Hebert adds that AutomationXchange may add some best practices sharing and discussion among its participating builders.

“This an especially good networking opportunity and chance to meet one-on-one both with suplliers and other machune builders,“ adds Keith Bunce, controls manager for citrus systems at FMC FoodTech. “People in the booths at tradeshows don’t really have the tme to understand what builders need. Here, the preparation beforehand is really the key to the focus we can achieve at this event. Everybody really did their homework. For example, B&R Industrial Automation really listened in our phone interviews, narrowed in, and nailed my interests. We focused on two issues about how to interface and integrate with existing suppliers, and when we might be able to use B&R’s solution in our servo-based juice extraction applications."