Service offerings expand from automation distributors

Today’s automation distributors offer more than warehouses full of the latest gadgets, providing a diversity of services to ease buying, installation, start-up, and more.


Distributors can offer a range of assistance from traditional logistics through integrated services. Courtesy: River Heights Consulting, Control EngineeringDistributors in the industrial automation industry have traditionally stocked their warehouses with all the latest technology from the vendors they represent so as to facilitate sales to local clients. With exclusive territories delineated by their vendor partners, distributors have prospered by charging a mark-up on every product sold nearby. This business model, born in the last century, still helps clients obtain hardware, software, and replacement parts on short notice.

Critics argue that the advent of Internet storefronts and improvements in shipping and logistics make the local-warehouse function obsolete. A distributor that adds no other value to a client’s automation projects simply drives up the cost.

So in recent years, some automation distributors have been making an effort to earn their keep in other ways that enhance the products they sell or improve their clients’ purchasing experience. See the “Distributor evolution” graphic on the next page. The Association for High Technology Distribution (AHTD) now recognizes a class of members known as “Automation Solution Providers” (ASP) that sell technology-based industrial automation products, and

  • Knowledge
  • Design and application engineering
  • Support services
  • Integrated solutions
  • Value-added services.

These services include programming, customer training, demonstration rooms and equipment, post-order product service and warranty support, and start-up assistance.

Not just product sales

Brian Fisher, president and CEO of Pacific Technical Products, sees his ASP firm as something of a cross between a traditional distributor and a system integrator, though “we actually put in a lot more up-front time during the design phase of the project to help select the right product for the application, and then we end up reviewing everything with the customer once the detailed product list is complete.”

Doing so reduces the chance of a mismatch between the capabilities of the products purchased and the requirements of the project at hand. “Products typically fail where they’re misapplied,” said Fisher, and it is an ASP’s job to prevent those failures much the same way a pharmacist prevents medical failures that could result from the misapplication of a prescription drug.

Rick Gehring, president and CEO of ASP Applied Controls, elaborated: “We help manufacturers and machine builders design and implement technology solutions to reduce costs throughout their processes and protect their automation investments for the long run.” He cited some of the challenges that an ASP can help clients address:

  • Maintenance demands from complex control schemes and constantly changing software
  • Difficulty lowering lifecycle costs and generating expected returns
  • Complying with changing regulatory and safety concerns
  • Rising costs due to rapidly evolving technologies
  • Reducing and managing energy consumption. 

Some ASPs and ASP-like distributors have moved even further into the design and installation fields that traditionally have been the purview of automation system integrators—level five of the “Automation distributor hierarchy.” For example, “Zeller Technologies is one of the few distributors in the nation that provides a full range of services as well as parts,” said Zeller’s automation controls manager, Tom Rudloff.

“We do high-level automation system engineering, installation, and start-up, along with field service troubleshooting on any system in industry. Our techs have been in almost every type of manufacturing process out there,” Rudloff said.

Conflict with system integrators

These expanded service offerings can be a mixed blessing, especially when a distributor counts both end users and system integrators as clients. End users no doubt appreciate the additional technical services that a distributor can bring to bear on their automation projects, but system integrators often see those services as a competitive threat.

Unfortunately, system integrators must still buy products from their designated distributor to incorporate into their own automation projects, leaving them in the awkward position of patronizing their competition. One conflicted integrator voiced his concerns rhetorically in a post to the discussion list of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA): “For the distributors that have internal SI capability: How do you attempt to manage the inherent conflict when bidding against your SI customer for SI services? How do you handle hardware and software pricing on projects that are bid against SI customers? Why do you maintain an SI capability that competes with your SI customers? Why should I buy anything whatsoever from a competitor?”

Judging from the number of distributors getting into the system integration business, these competitive conflicts are likely to become even more common. See the “Distributors offering system integration services” chart on the next page.

Cooperation, support

On the other hand, many system integrators and distributors enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. See the sidebar, “Integrators and distributors can work together" on the next page. And according to Viktor Tadjer, general manager of Kibernetika & Co. OOD, distributors today really can’t afford to stay out of the system integration business entirely.

“I find it very rare when we have sold a PLC or some HMI device without any additional engineering. My opinion is that distributors of control systems equipment should have at least average skills for integrating and/or commissioning the equipment they sell. Otherwise, many problems arise because of expensive errors in specifications and the resulting deliveries,” Tadjer said.

Some distributors recognize this need and still find ways to cooperate with their system integrator clients. “With our overlapping role as a products distributor and small integration service provider, said Brenden Fritz, president of Automated Drive Systems, “we focus on distribution and integration of small machine level systems that typically are smaller than a large integration company’s focus.”

Laurie Hall, president of Martindale Associates, takes a similar approach. “We can help with the installation for clients if the project is small, but for a project over $5K that’s very custom, or one that will take several weeks or months, we typically call in a large integrator,” Hall said.

Cooperative competition also affects the relationships that system integrators have with the vendors that their distributors represent. See “System integrators partner with automation suppliers,” linked below.

- Vance VanDoren, PhD, PE, is contributing content specialist for Control Engineering. Reach him at Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer,


See "System integrators partner with automation suppliers" linked below. 

See more about automation distributor types below with graphics:

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