Automation product designs cure pain points

When the research and development (R&D) team communicates with customers, automation product designs improve, and the resulting designs resolve pain points.

By Vikram Kumar, EZAutomation February 15, 2018

Designing automation products requires that research and development team member communicate with customer and resolve their pain points.

Product design advice

The most important advice about automation product design is to ensure the research and development (R&D) team is directly exposed to and in communication with customers. It’s beneficial to ensure sales and marketing staff, the chief executive officer (CEO), chief technology officer (CTO), as well as product design engineers travel to customer plants. Engineers need to see "customer pain points" to understand customer goals to increase productivity and efficiency. Ideas are sparked when developers see real-life applications of the products they are designing.

It’s a good idea to have a trusted "customer advisory group" of individuals from various industries and business types such as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), system integrators (SIs), and end users. Among thousands of potential ideas, the key is to select the ones the overall group decides is a "must have" or "cool" feature.

While it may sound obvious, the design team should always think outside the box and stay away from "me too products" to stress innovation.

For example, with many industrial power supplies available, attracting attention requires packing unique features into a compact DIN-rail package. These include a 3-digit LED display for output voltage, 2-digit LED display for output load current, a maintenance timer alert that shows hours of operation, how many hours are left based on temperature and load conditions, and a programmable current limit.

Automation product design inspiration

Inspiration for new products or product upgrades primarily come from "solving customer pain points" with general automation products that are currently available in the market. Several examples follow. 

  • A programmable logic controller (PLC) with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) capabilities: As plants focus on predictive and preventive maintenance methods to improve overall productivity and increase efficiency, everyone is focused on "collecting data in real time and analyzing that data for monitoring "machine health or efficiency." IIoT boils down to incorporating machine learning and big data technology, harnessing the sensor data, and machine to machine (M2M) communications where the data is accurately and consistently captured and communicated. After visiting numerous facilities wanting to capture the data in real time, a PLC with advanced communications capabilities was developed.
  • Power supply design: Maintenance engineers often are concerned about dc voltage and current draw from their switched-mode power supply (SMPS) in the control panel. With a typical power supply, a volt meter and a clamp current meter are needed to get the load current. A power supply offering load current helps.
  • Proximity sensor design: Difficult to view or reach locations are common for proximity sensors. Integrating a 360° red LED light ring indicates when the output is ON from any angle.
  • Timer design: After a look in a customer stock room with dozens of timer models for different applications, a programmable timer design eliminated the need for knobs, pots, and multiple timers.
  • Encoder design: Similarly, to reduce plant inventory and manufacturing downtime, a programmable encoder was made to allow configuration of resolution and output type and view position with a 4-digit LED display.
  • Wireless-enabled marquee: A Thanksgiving day call from the lead engineers of a large customer indicated the need to edit a message on a marquee hanging 20 ft above the plant floor. A serial RS-232 cable wasn’t available to fit the programming port. The result was a marquee with Wi-Fi capability so the change could be made from a laptop. (The short-term answer was a five-hour drive to deliver a cable.) 

Updates, time savings, scope

Unless it’s a change to meet market standards, product upgrades should be as innovative as new product development.

Vertical integration saves product development time and resources, by having expertise for concept, design, and manufacturing in one location. Taking advantage of other resources within the company-such as printed circuit boards, integrated circuits, chips, LCDs, and other components-can streamline the path to a final product design.

It is important to develop a project scope in the beginning and stick to it as much as possible throughout the design. New ideas and thoughts are readily available, but as long as the "team" does its due diligence before starting the design, an enormous amount of time can be saved.

Product lifecycle

A product development team must be involved in the lifecycle of a product. They must be in communication with vendors to know the end of life for certain components. They must be involved in sales and marketing at least from the "product idea" standpoint, and most importantly they MUST be involved with production, because designing for manufacturability (DFM) is just as important as schematic designs.

Vikram Kumar is chief executive officer (CEO) of EZAutomation. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

KEYWORDS Automation product design

  • Solving customer challenges is a good place to start for product design inspiration; see examples.
  • Vertical integration saves time.
  • Consider product lifecycle, including designing for manufacturability.


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