Can and should vendors fill the engineering gap?

Suffering a technical brain drain? Here are five specific ways customers can get effective help from vendors and distributors.

By Gary Kirckof February 20, 2014

There are many reasons why end users and equipment builders require the help of outside engineering services. One is a long-term engineering shortage. I know this firsthand when filling open technical positions in my own engineering group. Of course, finding well-qualified candidates for any field of work can be a challenge, but engineering job vacancies require particularly intense recruitment efforts.

Another reason why outside engineering services are needed is often due to inconsistent work flow.

Staffing decisions are often made to cover an “average” level of work, and contracting when needed helps maintain a core group of talent and reduces the need to let people go when workflow levels dip. The rise of contracting firms has also made this process easier.

Finally, because technology continues to change rapidly, it can be difficult to stay up to date and knowledgeable on technology changes and trends. By using the expertise of outside resources that specialize in particular technologies, a firm can feel reassured it’s staying well-informed of technological advances.

Specialists, programming

Here are five ways vendors can provide to customers.

1. Vendors have always offered engineering services to support their product lines and can serve an important role in providing relief in this area. Vendors often have numerous product specialists to assist with the selection and use of products, such as motor sizing and proper controller selection.

2. Many automation vendors also offer engineering and programming services beyond sales support.

3. Customer assistance with system design, programming for PLC, motion control and HMI, electrical installation, troubleshooting, and other services may be offered.

4. Customers can use vendors for assistance during periods of peak workloads as well as for expertise in certain industries or vertical markets.

Planning documents

5. Seek help by making a plan: Users of outside engineering services must know when to ask for help and work closely with the vendor to identify all relevant needs so a plan can be drawn up to solve them.

A. To start, select a vendor based on technical expertise and experience in the field. A good relationship with a vendor is essential, but don’t let the convenience of a long-term relationship automatically make your decision.

B. Next, check to make sure the service provider is capable of providing the specific services you are seeking. 

C. Also, when the customer fully defines the scope of work, the vendor understands a clear set of deliverables for which it is responsible. Sometimes it isn’t even clear to the user what the engineering work will actually involve, so take time to think it through and write it down in a planning document.

D. Last, manage the service provider by tracking its progress to ensure accountability. 

Vendors can and do play an important role in helping users of industrial equipment solve tough engineering challenges. Especially when the end user or machine builder has a specific, fixed timetable project that goes above and beyond “business as usual,” this can be a cost-effective alternative to hiring extra staff.

– Gary Kirckof is system engineering group manager, Beckhoff Automation. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Automation and control vendors also may have relationships with system integrators and can facilitate hand-off of a project that requires extra help or expertise.

Key concepts

  • Long-term shortages of engineering skills have customers looking to automation vendors for help.
  • Engineering services, programming, and system design are ways vendors can help.
  • Make a plan when seeking services from controls vendors. 

Consider this

Should you be getting more than just products from your automation and controls suppliers?