Providing Automation Services Globally

Automation vendors compete to deliver services as their customers expand across the globe.

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When the Millicent Mill, in Millicent, Australia, upgraded its control systems, Rockwell Automation offered a range of services. The mill—which makes Kimberly-Clark paper products—needed help installing a drive system and also needed training. “We received lots of Rockwell support from around the world,” says Ross Nugent, the mill’s manager, of the Milwaukee-based automation supplier. “We brought U.S. technology to Australia, and Rockwell played a big part in developing the controls. Rockwell Automation Drive Systems, located in Sydney, Australia, engineered and installed the drive system that included both drives and controls. In addition, Rockwell did the programming for the new technology and sent a consultant from the United States to Australia. “The communication came from everywhere,” says Nugent.

Rockwell also offered the plant services through a distributor. In addition, Rockwell checks parts for the plant and sends replacements so the plant doesn’t end up high and dry if a part fails. “We also get regular visits once or twice a year from Rockwell in the U.S.,” says Nugent. “Rockwell keeps us up on all the technology. They monitor how things are going.” In addition, Rockwell offers ongoing training both from its Australia office and from the United States.

The wide range of services that are delivered from numerous points on the globe is becoming common among automation vendors. Vendors are looking at global services as a way to develop additional revenues and to differentiate themselves in a competitive market. As hardware and software become increasingly standardized, the quality of services from around the world becomes a competitive factor. These services range from upgrades and training to proactive asset management and remote monitoring of plant activity.

Crest-riding market

A recent study from ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass., found that automation services are riding the crest of a growth cycle among automation vendors. “The total services market served by the automation suppliers approached $14 billion in 2006, and it will grow at an average annual rate of over 12 percent through 2011,” says Larry O’Brien, research director for automation services at ARC. He notes that mature markets such as North America and Europe will constitute the bulk of the market for automation services, but new revenue growth will be concentrated in the developing countries of China, the rest of Asia, and Latin America. By 2008, automation services delivered to
China will more than double those delivered to Japan.

Part of the reason automation services are a big factor in automation vendor growth is because those vendors have adopted standardized, commercial off-the-shelf components, which drastically reduces the cost of hardware. That means automation hardware has become a commodity. “With hardware no longer a competitive differentiator, suppliers look to their software and service offerings, as well as vertical industry expertise, to make up for the losses experienced in the hardware business,” O’Brien observes.

In that environment, services become an important source of revenue growth. “Automation services are getting to be the fastest growing business,” says O’Brien. Another factor driving the service business is the loss of expertise at plants. As baby boomers retire, they take their knowledge with them. Rather than replace that loss with additional personnel, plants are turning to vendors for system knowledge. “Shrinking resources at end-users leaves a smaller pool to draw from, so automation suppliers are filling the gap,” says O’Brien.

Some of the services offered by automation vendors are part of the agreement for a new system or an upgrade. But vendors also offer value-added services—sometimes on a subscription basis. Plants buy the services in part to gain expertise in optimizing their systems and managing their assets. “Automation vendors are evolving those services into long-term agreements,” says O’Brien. “What’s most interesting is the high value-added services that are targeted at helping the end-user get the most out of the control system. The vendors are working in a highly consultative role.”

As services become more important to automation vendors, they are also spreading globally. Outsourcing has sent factories into the developing world, from Eastern Europe to China and India. And as vendors compete to deliver services, that means they are offering those services in distant corners of the globe. “Providing services 10,000 miles away is part of how any large company needs to operate today. That requires global consistency,” says Bill Robertson, director of worldwide services, at process automation vendor Emerson Process Management, in Austin, Texas. As well as delivering those services to far corners of the planet, they’re also customizing those services to best fit the needs of their customers. “We provide that by establishing what the customer has in its plant and by understanding how they’re using our technology.”

One of the most difficult—and most important—aspects of global service is making sure service personnel truly understand the customer. Most automation vendors solve this by creating a first-line of service that speaks the local language and know the local customs. “The hidden cardinal sin is to not understand the customs, mores and expectations of the customer,” says Joe Allie, business manager for field labor at Rockwell. “The best way to understand that is to use service folks who are native to the region.”

Once a vendor makes a commitment to service its customers locally—which usually means hiring and training indigenous personnel—the time, language and customs problem is solved. “Time zones and languages are not really an issue. These things can actually work to your advantage when you’re able to operate around the clock and follow the sun,” says Steve Rahr, vice president of service processes for vendor ABB’s Process Automation Division, in Norwalk, Conn. “The biggest challenge for any large global company—particularly one with a long history of service—is to serve local customers according to local business conditions.”

Most vendors are providing a Web-based component of their services. These Web services usually include a self-service knowledge base, but they can also include online monitoring of plant activities. “Our services are delivered through a combination of Web-based support—which includes training and spare parts procurement—and online remote monitoring,” says Rahr. “We also provide field service engineers. Our total Process Automation Service organization is approximately 13,000 professionals globally.”

A big concern among vendors as they deliver services across the globe is maintaining a very close relationship with their customers, even if it means following those customers into distant regions. “The secret is to be as close to the customer as you can, since the customer experience is the more important part of service,” says Mike Pring, vice president of customer support and services at Wonderware, an Invensys company in Lake Forest, Calif. “Our first level of support is in the same time zone as the customer, and the service personnel are often indigenous employees in the same city or region.”

Some vendors have looked closely at some of the world’s best service providers for instruction on how to provide high-quality services. “We enhanced first-contact resolution after doing some studies with IBM. We monitored what was being done by them and other companies and we selected a tool that allows us solution management for our support center,” says Ricardo Cortejoso, head of Invensys services at Invensys Systems Inc., in London. “We’re standardizing and globalizing the tool for all our product lines.”

Many automation vendors offer layered support. The first line of support comes at the local level, with field service personnel who are from the local area, whether that’s China, India or Eastern Europe. The next level is often call center support, and in many cases, those calls are fielded by native speakers. The highest level of support typically goes to the developers at corporate headquarters. In most cases, that involves discussions in English.

Automation orchestration

Some vendors are taking their services very deep into their customers’ plants, even to the point of assuming responsibility for running the plant. “The supplier will assume full responsibility for all the automation in the plant. The supplier orchestrates everything and provides a single point of responsibility for all automation,” says ARC’s O’Brien. “In that case, the plant doesn’t have to deal with three automation providers and system integrators.”


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