One of the key ways American manufacturers will compete in the future is by becoming more efficient, and industrial automation plays a crucial role in that process. Add to that demand for “connectivity” solutions—driven by the swelling Internet of Things (IoT) market—and you have a recipe for increased sales among distributors of automation and control products and solutions.
Electrical product distributor Graybar is one example. National Product Manager Brett Felton says he is optimistic about the St. Louis, Mo.-based company’s industrial automation sales for 2015, especially in light of its recently expanded sales force, which will be less online-focused and more person-to-person.
“We have just expanded our customer-facing sales force. So we are not just an online-only distributor,” Felton said. “Instead, our people like to get out to the factories themselves—get to the plants and walk the floors with our customers and find out their needs.”
Felton sees an increased emphasis on pneumatics for Graybar in 2015.
“Now that we have been servicing more industrial customers, we would like to meet more of their overall needs. So beyond our electrical automation products, we are looking to improve our automation and control [offering] by adding process automation, process instrumentation, and a line of pneumatics,” he said.
Werner Electric Supply
Geary Wilson, vice president of technical solutions for Werner Electric Supply, Neenah, Wis., explained that most of Werner’s industrial automation customers are focused on reducing waste—especially when it comes to energy—while avoiding shutdowns and equipment failures.
“As far as automation, it is just a matter of developing equipment to automate and make a process more efficient or reduce waste,” Wilson said. “That is usually the biggest financial driver for automation: Reducing waste and making a process more efficient.”
The main customers for Werner include food processing as well as a variety of pulp and paper products—still a good industry for Werner. Among the newer industrial automation products Werner is seeing are more efficient lines of motors.
"There is sort of a trend on the smaller drives to go to servo motors and servo drives to be much more accurate and have much better control,” Wilson explained. “Servos have much better control and speed and position regulation than an AC motor would.”
Platt Electric Supply
Need for Speed—and Efficiency
A strong selling point for industrial automation product lines is that with so many American manufacturers having moved offshore, a good automation process can be a key to survival, explained Edgar Aponte, vice president of sales and marketing at Platt Electric Supply, Beaverton, Ore.
“If we want to keep our work force in our plants here, industrial automation is a requirement to keep the costs down and get more productive,” Aponte said. “When it’s all said and done, manufacturers have moved their plants to China or Mexico, more so to China than Mexico. And if they had just automated, if they had gone through an industrial automation process, we may have been able to save some of those jobs here in America.”
These days, industrial automation customers are facing new demands and challenges from their own customers. In turn, distributors are positioning themselves to help these companies meet those challenges.
“We know our customers want to make next year’s model of their products and machines even better than last year’s,” Felton said. “They want to beat the competition. They want to make their machines safer and constructed faster. We want to make sure we are getting in front of folks like that and offering the products that will help them do that.”
From Plant Floor to the Net
Communications from the plant floor to the factory’s control room has become a main focus as well. The Internet of Things is a major sales point in automation.
“The industrial Internet version of the Internet of Things is a continuance of a convergence of technologies that we have seen in industrial plants. They have been trying to provide more data from the factory floor to the control room—or even from the shop floor to the top floor—for many years,” Felton explained.
Foremost for many companies is using these improved communications to avoid costly downtime and repairs.
“The ability to make decisions to avoid downtime or costly equipment failure has been improved,” Felton said. “The technology has evolved and the price levels are reaching the point that industrial customers now want more and more mission-critical machines or components in their production lines to be connected to the plant network via industrial sensors gathering data—and then Ethernet devices communicating that data.”
From Werner Electric’s perspective, Wilson emphasized the ability to get instant access to vital information from half a world away.
“What automation people think about when they think of the Internet of Things is global corporations or the supply chain,” he said. “When a product manager of a large global company wants to see what’s being produced at this instant in time at his factory in Brazil, he can probably call up a production screen and it will show him what’s being made in Brazil, at that point in time—and also, what kind of scrap rates are being generated with their energy usages. That is all online, in real time. And that is stuff that even 10 years ago was a pipe dream. It happens every day now.”
Whether it’s called Internet of Things or automation or a combination of technologies, companies such as Platt Electric know they can provide an invaluable service to customers, Aponte explained.
“Ultimately, how do you run your process smarter, how do you make it faster, how do you take costs out of the equation?” he said. “Spread more of the technology into the individual devices so that they are a little smarter and they can communicate back to either a master controller or to some remote office that can monitor what’s going on. They can do a little more preventive maintenance rather than react when the plant is down or a line is down.”
While instant communication and information is crucial, industrial automation is also playing a greater role in plant safety.
“Industrial automation is still a hot button, but so is safety. In some instances they cross lines,” Aponte explained. “[For example], industrial automation helps with plant safety … which is causing companies to invest in equipment and technology to create a safer environment.”
Felton agrees and points to safety as a growing product line for Graybar, along with more requests for safety audits.
“One area of growth that we’ve seen with our OEM customers is machine-safety products. There is definitely a desire not just to provide a more energy-efficient machine, or construct it faster and get it to market quicker, but also to make it safer,” he said. “We can offer machine-safety audits for the end-users for their existing machinery and also to the OEMs who are considering a fresh, new design on their machine models—and then show them what options are available for newer machine-safety products.”