Small-scale automation projects

Inside Machines: How to get past time, money, and resource issues when executing small projects and specifying automation equipment and components.

By Jim Krebs August 5, 2016

For small-scale automation projects, low costs, ease of implementation, and a simple purchasing process are key requirements. On the supplier side, servicing these smaller customers can be challenging using traditional distribution channels. Many of these small-scale projects are using online product selection, purchasing, and support to address these issues—with varying degrees of success.

It’s important to understand the issues involved with small-scale automation projects—the advantages and the drawbacks of different buying processes. 

Small project issues

Small-scale automation projects are common for many control system integrators and machine builders (see Figure 1). These projects are small in terms of allotted budget, time, and personnel-but flawless execution is still required. This makes efficiency during each step of the project extremely important.

Common restrictions with executing small projects include tight budgets, short schedules, and limited availability of personnel. Before the project even starts, it often sits waiting for a purchase order from the customer. Many customers use this stage to request quotes for different options and to negotiate lower prices, and these tasks must be closely managed to stay within the budget. Given the small size of the project, suppliers can generally be strict with customers on these issues, holding to the price and restricting available options.

The temptation on many small projects is to forgo schedule planning; however a schedule always needs to exist for the purpose of knowing the status of every project. Each schedule should include major tasks, due dates, and dependencies among tasks.

Once the schedule is created, there is usually very little time to wait on parts or personnel. Many small projects are delayed due to limited resources as larger jobs often take precedence and divert personnel. These limited resources, often just one or two people, may also be pulled in several directions, delaying the start of or even starting and stopping the project repeatedly.

A tight budget, short schedule, and lack of resources make getting a machine designed and selecting and purchasing products a priority. These constraints can negatively impact an automation project without proper management, but there are ways to deal with these difficulties.

Addressing issues for small-scale automation projects

Finding an online store or distributor that understands and can help address these constraints is critical to the success of small-scale automation projects. Online sources and distributors can help with the following list of steps for each project:

  1. Design and specification
  2. Product evaluation, pricing, and selection
  3. Purchasing process
  4. Delivery
  5. Implementation
  6. Support.

The project design starts with a good specification, and the right supplier can assist with many basic, component selection decisions. The machine builder or system integrator must understand and define the requirements, but a good way to narrow the design options and specify the right products is to work with a knowledgeable distributor or a technical support specialist at an online store.

Many distributors, and some online stores, have excellent technical support to help project personnel understand how to best use products. Quick access to technical information is also critical, and this is an area where many online stores excel because of 24/7 availability. This immediate access to user manuals, how-to videos, connection diagrams, and other information can keep a project moving towards completion without delays.

Online stores often have Internet-based tools to facilitate evaluation, pricing, and digital selection of products. On the other hand, distributors typically rely more on face-to-face interactions, which also work well if the right personnel are available when needed.

Solutions for small-scale automation projects

Distributors and online stores simplify the design process for small-scale automation projects in many ways including:

  • Efficiency: Reduces the stages of projects by reducing the required interactions between project personnel and suppliers.
  • Order tracking: Helps the purchasing department track ordering and receipt of parts.
  • Supply a list of parts: The right distributor or online store can supply a parts list with part numbers, manufacturers, pricing, and delivery times for 80% or more of the parts needed on a small project. Typical parts needed on a small automation project may include control enclosures, power distribution components, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), motor controllers, sensors, pneumatic components, cables and connectors-automation distributors and online stores will generally have most of these products on hand.
  • Immediate delivery: Distributors can offer immediate delivery of product in stock but often take a few days to deliver other items. Online stores typically stock a much wider range of products and usually offer next-day delivery for all items (see Figure 2). While there may be some time available to wait for products during the initial purchasing stage, this usually isn’t the case when the project is in progress and a need arises for different or additional parts. In these cases, quick delivery becomes crucial.
  • Free technical assistance: Some online stores provide lots of free technical assistance. While distributors will generally offer face-to-face assistance when available, the technical acumen of personnel varies widely, particularly when it comes to automation. These factors should be taken into account when technical assistance will be required on a small project, which is often.

For particularly difficult questions, product engineers are often located in the same facility and can provide assistance (see Figure 3). When distributor personnel need help with a customer’s problem, they usually know the right person at the manufacturer to provide answers.

All other things being equal, online stores generally can offer lower pricing because they don’t have the overhead of supporting a network of distributors. If pricing is the driving factor on a small project, which is often the case, this can drive the decision to online.

The final decision to buy online or through a distributor often comes down to factors outside of the project team’s control. If the local distributor is not technically competent when it comes to automation, then a good online store is often the only workable option. If the project team has a good working relationship with a nearby distributor, that may motivate a decision using that approach. Another factor is personal preference. Project personnel may prefer the online buying experience and its 24/7 access, often because of being more familiar with online buying. While online ordering is attractive to some, others may need personal interaction before they feel comfortable and thus prefer a more traditional buying approach.

Jim Krebs is a technical marketer at AutomationDirect. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key Concepts

  • There are benefits to using online resources for small-scale automation projects.
  • Specific criteria help when deciding to purchase online versus a traditional buying approach.
  • Address issues related to small-scale automation projects.

Consider this

What are the benefits of opting for the traditional buying approach for a small-scale automation project?

Author Bio: Jim Krebs is a Technical Marketing Engineer at AutomationDirect. He began his career as a field service engineer and has more than 32 years of experience working with industrial equipment and controls for manufacturing, water treatment, wastewater treatment, food and beverage, and pulp and paper industries. Leveraging his experience with service, installation and training in industry, he currently develops technical manuals, training documents and reference material for products, industrial instrumentation, processes and software help files.