Automation vendors are increasingly being considered as project partners by machine builders placing as much importance on the system design and support capabilities as on the extent of their product portfolio. Neil Beaumont, Marketing Communications Manager at Lenze, offers insight to those about to choose an automation partner.
Customers increasingly demand that machine builders provide flexible machines that can accommodate multiple product configurations and fast cycle times, with minimal time loss between changeovers, while complying with strict international machine safety regulations.
Some automation vendors have taken on a role far beyond that of supplying components as modern process and production machinery is now almost entirely automated. With substantial functionality embedded in high-speed communications networks, many machine builders now expect both extensive systems design expertise and a comprehensive technical support programme to leverage the maximum added-value from the technology. In addition, they expect a long-term business relationship.
There are several essential details that the machine builder should consider when embarking on the selection process. It is important to look at the range and scalability of the product portfolio of a supplier. If an automation partner can prove they can cover most of a machine builder's automation needs in terms of product, then single source supply emerges as a more attractive option than working with multiple suppliers. How flexible the vendor is in dealing with customers should be considered next. Can they work on all aspects of a project including design, construction, installation and training, or just supply specific services? Will the automation vendor be able to help with the system design? What about system development software tools? Are these provided? Are they reliable and easy-to-use?
Many machine builders prefer not to invest the time and effort in developing in-depth expertise and prefer to consult with their automation partner for the systems expertise.
Working alongside a solutions provider will offer the best chance to maximise the added value and get a successful project outcome. Where design capabilities are concerned, there are several questions to ask of a prospective automation partner including their ability to provide reliable advice in the earliest concept design stages? Do they have in-depth knowledge and experience of the process? What support can they offer to transfer skills such as engineering training and software creation?
Software tools are used across all stages of the machine's life cycle from planning and design, to programming, diagnostics and maintenance. Lenze's FAST application software can be incorporated into machines; typically, over 80 per cent of the design requirements for most motion-control applications can be met, thus reducing the project/design risk and saving time and effort establishing new system designs.
Once the design is completed, it will be converted into a bill of materials. Ideally the supply partner will have a broad portfolio of products - and the knowledge to apply them. Seamless connectivity is the byword here, although the machine builder should not expect all products from one supplier to be interoperable across successive generations. The automation partner must have sufficient understanding of their portfolio to be upfront and provide guidance on how to fulfil the application requirements without the machine builder getting lost in interconnectivity issues.
Lastly, an automation partner needs to provide evidence that their product portfolio is scalable, complete and modular. Can the portfolio cover everything from simple to complex applications? It is also advisable to research the company itself - is it financially stable, does it have industry recognised accreditations, certifications and so on.
A level of after-sales support can be assumed, even for the simplest of component suppliers. However, if the intention is to partner with a supplier, then expectations should be considerably greater. For example, is this support comprehensive and worldwide? Is an extended warranty provided? Is the supplier open about product obsolescence and can they support machine updates that extend life?
Armed with all this critical underlying knowledge, the machine builder can begin to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a potential automation partner - helping them to make the right choice.
Learn more about Lenze's automation offering at www.lenze.com.