Smart Machines & Factories
Choosing an automation supplier wisely
Published:  11 October, 2017

Many machine builders are relying more heavily on their automation suppliers to help them realise their designs – so choosing the correct partner is critical. Derek Jones & Dave Randall, Lenze’s business development managers, explain.

Selecting an automation supplier is a complex business. As a machine builder, you want to be sure that your chosen supplier can meet all your needs. But how do you find that perfect partner? It’s important to understand some of the aspects behind the selection process – then ask a series of searching as well as solid design capabilities, in-service support and appropriate development tools. The challenge is to determine which supplier can provide all this.

Most machine builders are under considerable pressure to maximise production throughput, boost quality, cut manufacturing costs and accommodate a variety of product configurations. Modern automation systems must therefore be faster and more agile than ever before. But, most importantly, systems must operate perfectly and be reliable – meaning no breakdowns and with zero – or minimal – maintenance.

To do this, they must balance two conflicting demands: for smarter machinery, with multiple motion axes that can cut cycle times and boost productivity, while collecting and processing more data than ever before; and greater simplicity, which brings the price down and helps end users to reduce maintenance. In most cases, it is about ensuring that a machine is optimised so it is neither too simple, nor too complex – and certainly not over-engineered (which would add expense).

A number of critical questions to ask of a potential supplier can help establish their worth as a partner.

Design expertise

A deep understanding of the automation process is a key attribute of a strong partner. It’s true to say that many machine builders are not experts in motion: they know exactly what they need their machine to do – in process terms – but do not always know how to achieve the essential motion requirements at the most economical cost. This is why they need to be able to rely on a knowledgeable partner.

Of course, there’s a lot that depends on specific needs. Machine builders with simple, unchanging designs probably feel they receive satisfactory service from one or more simple component suppliers. Whilst those involved in bespoke projects and constantly seeking performance improvements are more likely to recognise the benefit of close collaboration and expert assistance. However, in times of rapid technological development and changes to statutory environments – such as currently –, competitive pressures are prompting companies across the spectrum to challenge their supply partners to provide solutions with greater value

Working alongside a solutions provider, rather than one of the ‘me-too’ component suppliers, offers the best chance for ultimate success.

Some key questions to ask around design are:

• Do they have strong, relevant knowledge of your process?

• Will they take substantial responsibility for sizing and selection advice in the early stages?

• Can they support skills transfer – such as application engineering and training – to ensure smooth passage through your engineering process?

• Can they demonstrate previous solutions and how added-value has been provided and optimised?

Broad product offering

No matter how innovative a solution is, it must at some point be converted into a list of components. And this requires a supply partner to have a comprehensive product portfolio – as well as be able to make it easy to understand what components and accessories need to be purchased.

The key factor here is whether components can be connected seamlessly. It seems natural that a single supplier should have parts that work with one another. However, portfolios sometimes grow through acquisition – so two parts from the same supplier may actually have been designed in isolation. It may be some time before ‘new’ parts become fully integrated.

Many major suppliers will have portfolios like this. The key factor is whether they routinely share sufficient understanding of these limitations. For instance: which parts are not optimally matched; or, which ones are not recommended for use for your application.

Some key questions on products are:

• Is their portfolio fully scalable, complete and modular? (Also, is it fully integrated – i.e. from a common design team?)

• Can their products cover the foreseeable power range and provide the control accuracy needed? (Are they future-proof?)

Strong supply chain

The components are in place. Now, they need to be delivered – quickly and reliably. So, in a very practical way, a strong supply chain is critical.

In many industries, supply continuity is critical. A machine builder may need a guaranteed supply of parts for many years, so machine builders need to be confident that this can be achieved.

Savvy customers often assess a supplier’s long-term strength before anything else. They also need to be sure that if they make changes – such as opening a new production facility in a different country – it will be supported equally well. It is critical that the supplier’s production and quality control processes are equally strong in all locations.

Some key questions to ask regarding supply chain:

• Can your supplier demonstrate long-term financial strength?

• Are their production and quality management systems the same in each location?

• Are they geared-up to routinely support a range of specific delivery options – such as to global locations – and over many years?

In-service support

it’s important to expect a high level of service and back-up. - even from the most basic of component suppliers. We have all been involved with service organisations – from mobile phone providers to restaurants – whose performance was below par. The same is true here: is the supplier truly willing and able to work alongside you for the entirety of a project and machine life-cycle?

Some key questions to ask regarding service support are:

• Is the supplier’s support comprehensive, and does it fit with market needs – such as offering extended warranty or support-plans?

• What is their product obsolescence policy – and is it openly published?

• Is support available for machine-life extensions?

System concept and development tools

In the past, software development tools were not particularly well developed – but now the sophistication and range of functions provided are crucial to streamlining the implementation and support activities.

These days, software tools are used across all stages of the machine’s lifecycle – from project planning and design through to programming, diagnostics and maintenance.

Some key questions to ask regarding system concept and development tools:

• Do they offer easily accessible tools for a range of applications – such as application assessment, project planning, programming and maintenance?

• Is their product documentation easily accessible?

• Can their tools help me cope with multiple ‘what if’ scenarios? For example, to identify the best option for energy efficiency.

In conclusion, it is worth bearing in mind that customers have vastly different needs – which are difficult to summarise in a general way. However, arming yourself with the right questions can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of a potential automation partner – and help you make the right choice.

Lenze says its design concept offers modular ‘FAST blocks’ that machine builders can incorporate into their products, to achieve complex motion easily. Complex operations are broken down to a finite number of motion sequences. By combining the ‘FAST blocks’, a machine builder can quickly equip their machine with a wide range of motion that suits their needs – but without having to develop complex, bespoke software of their own.

All machines are different, but most combine common functions – such as indexing, winding/unwinding and sealing on packaging lines, for instance. The best automation development environments provide ready-made, tested modules that handle a comprehensive range of machine functions. This modular approach makes engineering quick, easy and reliable.