How to choose an automation partner

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Machine builders are increasingly thinking of their components suppliers as project partners and making extensive use of their system design and support capabilities. Derek Jones of Lenze UK offers some advice on how to select an automation partner.

How to choose an automation partnerMachine builders are under increasing pressure from their customers to provide optimised machine availability that delivers fast cycle times, accommodates multiple product configurations with minimal time loss between changeovers, while complying with strict, often complex, international machine safety regulations.

As modern process and production machinery is now almost entirely automated, with substantial functionality often embedded in high-speed communications networks, some automation vendors have taken on a role far beyond that of just supplying components. Indeed, many machine builders now expect their automation vendors to have the means to provide both extensive systems design expertise and a comprehensive technical support programme to underpin it in order to leverage the maximum added-value from the technology, as well as the business relationship.

Selecting the best automation supplier can therefore be a complex task but, as an initial starting point, there are a number of fundamentals the machine builder should take into account when embarking on the selection process. When appraising a supplier, the first thing that is likely to be looked at is the range and scalability of their product portfolio.

Product portfolio and technical support

Admittedly, few machine builders want to be tied exclusively to a single vendor, however, neither do they want to work with multiple suppliers and suffer from ensuing interoperability problems. If an automation partner can demonstrate their ability to cover most of a machine builder's automation needs in terms of product, then single-source supply does begin to look like the more attractive option.

The next task is to find out how flexible the vendor is in his dealings with customers – can they work with you on all aspects of a project, or simply supply specific services such as design, construction, installation or training – but without a specifically joined-up approach. Virtually all vendors offer technical support, but technical support can mean different things to different people; it may initially appear to be a minor point but a good automation partner will quickly demonstrate the ability to deliver truly in-depth support targeted on helping you optimise your success. Will the automation vendor be able to help in-depth with your system design, based upon solid application knowledge and proven experience; can they provide system development software tools that are easy-to-use and 100 per cent reliable? Let us now take a look at these points in a little more detail.

Taking motion control as an example, many machine builders do not want to invest too much time and effort in developing in-depth expertise in this field of automation. They will instead have clear requirements in terms of loads, distances and speeds/timing, etc and want to consult with their automation partner for the necessary systems expertise, regarding optimum sizing, scaling and system architecture. Where design capabilities are concerned, there are several questions to ask of a prospective automation partner:

  • Can they provide dependable advice in the early system design stages?
  • Can they demonstrate in-depth knowledge and experience of your process
  • Is their advice authoritative and are they able to take complete responsibility for the advice being provided?
  • Are they prepared to 'bundle-in' comprehensive skills support such as engineering training and application software creation?

In this way, working alongside a 'solutions provider' rather than a simple component supplier will offer the best chance of a maximised value-added and successful project.

Software tools are used across all stages of the machine’s lifecycle – not just planning and design, but also programming, diagnostics and maintenance. For example, Lenze's FAST application software can be incorporated into machine builders' products for complex motion. By combining FAST application software, a machine designer can quickly equip a machine with a wide range of well-proven motion functions that suit their needs, and without having to develop complex, bespoke software of their own. This lowers project/design risk and frees-up resources to focus on any challenges elsewhere in the system design.

Once the design stage is completed, at some point it will have to be converted into a bill of materials. This requires a supply partner to have a broad portfolio of products and the knowledge to apply them. Seamless connectivity is the byword here, but the machine builder may not be able to expect all products from one supplier to be interoperable across successive generations. The key factor is whether they have sufficient understanding of their portfolio to be upfront and provide guidance on how to optimally fulfil the application requirements without the machine builder getting lost in inter-connectivity issues.

A prospective automation partner should be asked the following:

  • Is their product portfolio scalable, complete and modular?
  • What is the span of power requirements and can the portfolio cover everything from simple to complex applications?
  • Can you deliver quickly (often to overseas customer destinations) and can you guarantee supply of parts for at least three or more years?

It is also advisable to do some homework on the company itself: is it financially stable, does it have industry recognised accreditations, certifications and so on.

After-sales support is a given, even for the simplest of component suppliers. However, if the intention is to partner with a supplier, then expectations will be considerably greater. For example, is this support comprehensive and is extended warranty provided? Is the supplier open about product obsolescence and does he support machine-life extensions?

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.

Following the link to find out more about Lenze, its products, software and support services.

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