Vendor and Platform Choices

In my previous life as a consultant I was able to experience a wide variety of vendors and automation platforms. There is a wide variety of choices available though you are often restricted by the specifications of the company you are working for. This makes sense from a controller and software standpoint, companies have a huge investment in hardware, software and training and are not too keen on putting new platforms in their plants without an overwhelming reason.

The reason may have to do with new technology that isn’t available from their current vendor, cost savings due to said technology or even simply being nickeled and dimed on software licences and support contracts. In Tony’s Software Blog “When Suppliers Start Milking You, Start Moving” he draws a comparison to commercial choices in phone service providers:

The same logic applies to business. Your CAD is asking too much in maintenance fees for too little value? Seriously investigate changing (or use a mix); there are good alternatives, some of which are probably better than what you are using. Your PLC vendor nickle and dime-ing you?. At least start a pilot test using a brand that supports you better.

It seems though that the larger a company gets however the more resistant to change they become. My current employer has had a long standing relationship with an unnamed major PLC and controls manufacturer (lets just say that their initials are the first two letters of the alphabet :-)). When I began working there they had a support agreement that included a dedicated helpline, more software licenses than we had people and a vendor representative with an office in our facility. Partly because of the economic downturn and partly because of fewer engineers none of these things are true anymore. In addition our pricing is no longer as competitive. So what are the alternatives? Well, with this particular manufacturer the vendors have protected territories so there is no way to put pressure on the vendor short of changing platforms. We also have a reputation for using this particular product so most of our existing customers are tied to the product also.

There is also a long standing tradition of buying related products of this brand to obtain price concessions on the main hardware. Since the pricing is no longer a reason to continue doing this you would think that other products would be much more likely to be used outside of the necessary controllers and software but old habits die hard and most engineers like staying in their comfort zone.

I attended the Automation Fair in Orlando this Fall and the manufacturer had actually entered into the budget PLC realm. There was a micro PLC that was listed at less than $100 as well as some very inexpensive servo systems. This shows that they too are feeling pressure from the low cost platforms. The software was even free! Unheard of for this particular manufacturer (which will remain unnamed but rhymes with “Ailing Badly”).

I will always still be focused on choosing the best products for the customer within the limits of their and our specifications. There are times however when the best product for the application is not an option.

Good luck and keep automating!

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2 comments on “Vendor and Platform Choices
  1. Tony says:

    There’s a lot more that could be said; I’ll just add a few comments now:
    1. A lot depends on the kind of equipment you make; e.g. if the customer is going to support it, and modify it, then using one of “their brands” makes sense. OTOH, many automated machines have a lot of custom code (semiconductor front end, PCB pick and place, etc), the customer does not perform service, and thus the OEM have a pretty free hand in equipment selection.
    2. I’m probably pretty unusual for an automation software/electrical developer. I’m still careful about switching vendors, but I try to keep an open mind (heck, I’ll look into __’s low cost PLC’s to see how they stack up).
    3. Even if you pretty much have to stay with vendor A, it’s worth considering doing a pilot with vendor B so you can put pressure on vendor A (back in the mainframe days, people did that with IBM and Amdahl). I know we got extra special servo motor pricing from a big vendor because “the motors were displacing a competitor’s”.

  2. Tony says:

    And a few more thoughts:
    I do get really frustrated with people who are unwilling to try to improve.

    A lot of good products and techniques have never taken off because “nobody else uses them”. That’s a self-fulling prophecy. Yes, financial stability matters, but large companies can also axe your favorite product in a heartbeat when it fails to meet expectations, or match the latest strategy.

    In software development, specifying, say C# “because it’s easy to hire programmers” isn’t a good reason. Any competent programmer can pick up a new language quickly. Same goes for MCAD; I suspect a lot of companies would be better off with direct modeling capable software such as SolidEdge (from Siemens) or IronCad (which has been around a long time) instead of SolidWorks, Pro/E, or Inventor.

    But on the flip side, it’s not good to chase every little trend and listen to all the hype. The general software business is especially good at hyping up “the next new thing”, which never delivers the promised “silver bullet”, and is promptly replaced by the next new thing in a year or two.

    Side note: one of my pet peeves is trying to tie in the latest hype (whether it be “Web 2.0”, “open standard”, “object oriented”, etc) with non-related products (e.g. “Instrumentation 2.0”).

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