Service offerings expand from automation distributors
Automation distributor types: Logistics vs. projects
What we have observed is an evolutionary split in distributor services. One type of distributor became an expert in the logistics of the moving parts and providing just what the customer wants without heavy investment in technical services. These distributors provide the same products but work to make the transaction side of buying easier. They have invested in websites, automated part number selection schemes, and industrial vending machines (over 21,000 installed in 2012). Examples include Grainger, MSC, Fastenal, and AutomationDirect. They have no local level expertise (except phone support) and depend on customers knowing precisely what they want and offering a lower price point for the product.
The other branch of the distributor evolution contains distributors who have opted for a more hands-on selling approach. They are serving customers by assisting in selection of products, maintaining the products, and pushing forward—things like drive start-ups, programming assistance, architecture layout, troubleshooting, and in some instances, project work.
These distributors have developed services like training, control architecture design, and communications layouts, which often exceed others in the market. Why? They are forced to learn about new technologies ahead of engineering firms and systems integrators because they play the role of trainers to that group as well.
Further, distributors often find themselves on the front lines of “proving things work.” A customer calls and says, “the DeviceNet connection doesn’t work like you promised.” The distributor then goes out and troubleshoots to prove the system works, often discovering undocumented issues along the way.
- Frank Hurtte is the founder of distributor River Heights Consulting. www.riverheightsconsulting.com
Integrators and distributors can work together
Maintaining a good relationship with our main distributor has been an integral part of our success. Twenty years ago we looked to our distributors to carry a parts inventory and that was all. Because of this attitude, a lot of big distributors (and even some smaller ones) in the 1990s moved to centralized warehouses with very little inventory at the local level. In some cases, they closed down their supply house and opened a sales office only. Some went so far as to cut back on their technical staff as well, relying on the manufacturers to supply technical support.
Today, some of the distributors still have this mind-set. Ours has gone the other direction, and because of this, they receive the bulk of our electrical purchases. On the inventory side, they’ve not only raised their inventory levels at the supply house to meet our demands, they also manage and run our inventory here. This saves a tremendous amount of time on our side.
We also look to them for our technical needs. The local branch has specialists for variable frequency drives (VFDs), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMIs), and other areas. These people spend a lot of time helping with design questions and service questions and setting up training sessions, at their shops and at ours.
- Todd Carswell is vice president of technical services at system integrator Vecoplan LLC. www.vecoplanllc.com
Automation distributor services
The services provided by modern automation distributors can be arranged in a hierarchy where each level builds on the levels below. Higher levels also involve more technical skills and greater involvement with a client’s automation projects.
1. No fee-based services. Customer technical needs other than manuals and front line questions are pushed to manufacturers.
2. Limited fee-based services, typically centered on classroom training and custom modifications of product
3. Classroom training, one-on-one engineering assistance, drive start-up, system wide layouts
4. Training, troubleshooting, start-up, and product specific programming; piecemeal project integration
5. Training, troubleshooting, start-ups, complete project integration.
- Distributors can go beyond offering the latest technologies to provide buying, installation, start-up, and other services.
- Automation distributor services build on each other
- Integrators and distributors can work together
Are you getting what you need from your distributors? If not, why not?