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The many moods of automation distribution

Jan. 20, 2023
Distribution channels come in many flavors with varying degrees of expertise and offerings

Automation distributors and system integrators come in many flavors. And it’s that rich combination of offerings that provides such a broad array of tastes for anyone’s appetite.

For instance, Clayton Controls sells Mitsubishi and Universal Robots equipment, says Tobey Strauch, an independent principal industrial controls engineer based in Fremont, California. “However, that is only two brands in their fleet,” she notes. “Also, they will do panel drawings and build panels if you send them a bill of material. They also have a mechanical-engineering department and a test lab for robotics, so that they can test end effectors and cameras to validate suggestions with their components. This gives reassurance that components will work for the application. They also have application engineers that can be hired for the purpose of helping a corporation in-house on installation or maintenance projects. This helps manage time and resources. Clayton has given me constant support on two recent projects to the point that I can call Josh Mylnar and he can answer a question that gets me going to the next step for the next morning.”

Another smaller distributor that Strauch mentions is Taylor Ellis’s group at South Coast Controls, which specializes in building panels. “She supports bigger integrators like DWFritz and the like, and her component partners are Rockwell Automation, Fanuc and Festo. She supports local industry. She builds panels that can be found across the nation. She is super busy, but I can also call up Taylor or email her and say, ‘I am looking for this kind of valve, but don’t know what it’s called,’ and describe it. Then she takes a look and gives a suggestion. Of course, it will be the best. This is customer service.”

Progressive Machine & Design (PDM) in Victor, New York, is a larger integrator that makes whole assembly lines, notes Strauch. “These guys specialize with corporations to build assembly lines that work for specific manufacturing processes,” she explains. “What do they have in common with the other two I have mentioned? Customer service.”

PMD can get on assembly lines remotely and troubleshoot, says Strauch. “This allows large companies to work with them on the transition of ownership between the installation, site-acceptance test and after-machine warranty,” she notes. “This is a different business plan than an integrator building small machines or doing machine tending.”

Other pieces in the integrator-distributor puzzle include large automation-component companies that have their own divisions or networks, expanding their own capabilities with the ability to offer more than just components. “The big guns—Rockwell Automation, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Emerson, ABB, Beckhoff—these are conglomerates that own components, have sponsored integrators and distributors and provide services themselves, broad services, as well as specialized services and software,” notes Strauch.

“They are also doing the research for the industry,” adds Strauch. “Most of the time, they will refer you to integration companies that have met their standards of installation and are representing them. For instance, Control Associates in Allendale, New Jersey, installs Delta V. Keep in mind, that the distributed control systems integrators have different purposes than machine builders. They are more software-intensive. They are the ones that will be doing the digital twins.”

Also, integrators and suppliers can be found in groups based on the industries they support, notes Strauch. “Automation Group started in the food industry in middle California, and they have stayed to their roots, supporting Blue Diamond Almonds and the wine industry. Control Associates supports the pulp-and-paper and chemical industries with their DCS services. AdEdge Water Technologies builds for water filtration and water industry services. They were bought out by a larger group, ChartWater, because companies want these types of integrators in their portfolios to provide broader services for their customer bases.”

Another type of integrator has emerged with software-based services—Corso Systems, headquartered in Chicago, focuses on supervisory control and data analysis (SCADA) and manufacturing execution systems (MES). “Some of these companies may get hired as subcontractors on big installs, as partners to machine builders that do not do the data side,” explains Strauch. “This is the difference with the operational-technology (OT) emergence. Automation Group is expanding in this arena based on the business developments and their customer needs.”

The onset of artificial intelligence in the controls industry has spawned another type of integration company. Kelvin AI, founded and headquartered in San Francisco, is applying artificial intelligence to control systems, and tackling specific industry needs, notes Strauch, referencing, for example, oil and gas, in which Kelvin is developing a system that can do predictive analysis. “They are pushing for sustainability, based on analyzing the huge amounts of data that is passing through real-time systems,” she says.

“Overall, all these companies are integrators, and they all have distribution channels supporting them. Customers need to choose integrators based on what they wish to accomplish,” asserts Strauch. 

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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