I’ve spent most of my career setting up new production operations—buying various automated solutions, information systems and production equipment. The quality of automated solutions that I purchased ranged from world class to unmitigated failures. Experience has taught me that there’s no magic to being a world-class automated equipment supplier. And yet I have encountered very few suppliers from which I’d make future purchases, much less consider world-class.
Automated solutions present unique challenges in the supplier-buyer relationship. Even if basic automated functions are well-designed and effectively implemented, many external factors can degrade solution performance. Some external factors are easy to identify: maintenance not being performed as required or operators not being properly trained. But there are many other—less obvious—factors that can reduce the performance of an automated system. Infrastructure might not be robust or consistent enough. Raw material supply could be shifted from one source to another, impacting dimensions or material properties that are critical to the automated process. Lack of sufficient change management could result in control system coding modifications that impact automation reliability.
To develop automation that achieves consistent high performance, suppliers must think more like customers than machine builders. They need to look beyond the specification they are provided and evaluate the true needs of their customers. Those that make this approach part of their operational DNA are the ones that typically earn my loyalty as a buyer.
Thinking back on my experiences, it seems that the best suppliers—those that I would maintain were world-class—had six common differentiators:
1. They focused on impact, not just technology
Unquestionably, advances in manufacturing and information technology have transformed industries. Producers can achieve tighter tolerances, fabricate more complex geometries, leverage higher-performing materials, etc. But many of these great technologies are installed every year and fail to achieve a business result. That’s because the sourcing process, co-owned by the supplier and buyer, fails to identify the impact the technology seeks to achieve.
Those suppliers with robust processes for requirements definition, aimed at connecting business impact to equipment performance, were better informed about the human environment into which technologies were to be integrated. This led to more complete adoption in our business and more rapid return on investment.
2. Requirements definition relied on data
Experienced design engineers too often jump to solutions before fully understanding the technical challenge. While at GE, I learned to use Six Sigma tools to better understand true design requirements—not just for products but for processes and equipment. With Six Sigma, we relied on statistical analysis of measurements to identify sources of variance and, ultimately, potential solutions, greatly reducing our reliance on opinions. I have encountered few automation suppliers that applied this kind of thinking in their designs. And it showed.
3. Design processes aimed to de-risk the solution
Many custom automated solutions have inherent risks because of their reliance on unproven processes, materials or hardware. Common examples include new methods for fixturing parts; incorporation of unfamiliar, advanced sensors; erroneous entry of critical parameters by operators (humans invariably make mistakes); or inconsistent properties of raw materials. Relying on the intuition of an experienced designer as a means of mitigating these kinds of risk is, in itself, risky.
The best suppliers I have encountered leveraged robust design methods to identify weak points, seeking to identify sources of variance and potential failure mechanisms prior to locking in designs. They worked with us to fully understand these design “leaps of faith” and planned their projects to allow for prototype or benchtop demonstrations that de-risked the design.
4. Project leadership anticipated challenges
The pressures of schedule and budget drive many solution suppliers to develop aggressive design/build project plans. Coordinating the various engineering, fabrication, assembly and testing resources demands strong project management. But I’ve always viewed this level of project management as the price of entry into the custom solutions marketspace. What I seek in a supplier is the ability to look beyond the automated solution and anticipate challenges.
For instance, it wasn’t uncommon for our custom solutions to take as much as a year from purchase order to full commissioning. During this time, production operations experienced changes in raw material suppliers, labor force makeup and/or product performance specs. Suppliers that recognized these shifts were able to anticipate changes that were required in our design—heading off troubling equipment performance issues post-installation.
5. They were transparent
I spent several years running a customer support team for a manufacturing simulation company. That experience taught me that customers hate surprises. In fact, I found that customers expected honesty, not perfection. If they had a problem that required multiple days of effort to resolve, they appreciated frequent updates, even if those updates indicated that no progress had yet been made. This level of transparency is a sign of world-class supplier behavior.
Many times, I found that the solution to difficult design problems were identified faster and more effectively when our supplier collaborated with us. Suppliers that protected information—particularly when issues arose—increased our operational risk and often caused unnecessary delays in full realization of equipment impact. A few ended up in conflict and arbitration (everyone was a loser in those cases).
6. They owned problems
When I was leading installation of process equipment for a large startup factory, we had a multimillion-dollar automated heat treat system that was a bottleneck in our product flow. Immediately after startup, there was a failure of a cooling line that cracked the insulation of the heat treat equipment. This was a major fix.
Upon hearing about the issue, the supplier fully owned the resolution. They engaged their supply chain to prioritize shipment of the custom-made insulation, they reallocated field staff to be on site for rebuild upon receipt of materials, they leveraged their engineering capability to identify the root cause of failure and they developed and implemented a solution. In the end, we came to a mutually beneficial arrangement on cost sharing. It was the best example of world-class support I’ve experienced in my career. The supplier owned the problem—a supplier behavior I’ve experienced too infrequently.
None of these six behaviors are out of reach by any supplier. But I’ve found that only those suppliers with strong leadership teams—that cared more about long-term customer results than short-term cash flow—found a spot on my world-class supplier list.
Pete Kalish is director of business development at O’Brien & Gere, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about O’Brien & Gere, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.