For distributors that sell and work in motion control, 2014 was a strong year overall. And although 2015 started off fairly well, some saw their motion-control business level off through mid-year. Fortunately, new product developments—many requiring sophisticated technical knowledge—have kept business reasonably steady.
However, distributors are seeing an increasing amount of commoditization, especially in the less-sophisticated motion-control product lines.
“Motion control, more and more, is becoming commoditized, at least on the low end,” explained Corey Foster, applications engineering manager at Valin Corp., a technical solutions provider headquartered in San Jose, Calif. “More and more companies can pick stuff off the Internet more easily. There are a lot of players out there on the low-end side of motion control.”
There seems to be more of a philosophical reaction to this trend, rather than any deep concern or worry on the part of distributors. They know their value-added expertise and experience are still needed, especially on the new and more sophisticated products and applications.
“For many distributors like ourselves, a lot of our value is in knowing the products and knowing how to specify them in applications,” said Foster. “On the higher end … [customers] need a lot more of our help. A lot of our vendors are coming out with more high-end controllers. And those are pretty support-intensive.”
Tim Gillig, president of Livingston & Haven, an industrial technology provider based in Charlotte, N.C., agrees that the higher-end applications require a knowledgeable distributor.
“That is where we try to play. We feel like we have a much bigger advantage in the high-end where we are doing multi-axis motion, or even on very sophisticated closed-loop hydraulic controls,” said Gillig. “That is an area where you’re seeing a nice uptick in business.”
The need to emphasize value-added services, especially on the more sophisticated product lines, is nothing new. It has long been a standard practice at Eastern Industrial Automation, based in Manchester, N.H.
Drew Tucci, vice president of sales and marketing, explained that 2015 “has been a very promising year for us.” Eastern’s various value-adds have been among the reasons.
“I would say our synergy product solutions … our ability to respond quickly to applications, our application opportunities, [and] our drive startups [have helped],” explained Tucci. “We do field-service startups. [That] has been very helpful for us to avoid the commodity-selling model. We have nine specialists that focus on automation in New England alone.”
Pat Sharkey, the company’s pneumatic automations division manager, pointed to additional factors for the company’s motion-control success.
“We’ve added people to our pneumatics division within the last six months,” he said. “They are starting to develop new opportunities. It has all been from developing new business and taking it away from the competition.”
Although Tucci agrees that the less technologically sophisticated motion-control lines have become more commoditized, he says he is confident in his company’s overall approach. Eastern Industrial recently opened an office on Long Island, N.Y.
“We really focused on growing the automation side with multiple manufacturers,” said Tucci. “We have had a motion-control focus that was born into automation solutions on the electrical side. Now we’re looking at solutions that could be electrical, electromechanical, or pneumatic automation.”
Sharkey remarked that Eastern’s variety of value-adds, as well as motion-control options, is another advantage for them.
“If a customer wants to automate a process because of the labor costs, health costs, and those challenges … one way to do it is electrical, electromechanical, or pneumatic. So we provide three different options to the customer,” he said.
Training and Education
Training—product and employee—is another successful value-added feature available from some distributors. Gillig notes that Livingston & Haven’s various training programs have become very much in demand.
“We do about 26 weeks each year of high-level hydraulic and automation training here at Livingston & Haven. That’s a very popular one,” said Gillig.
In addition to new product training, customers want Livingston & Haven to help train their new, less-experienced employees. Gillig estimates they do such training for 25 to 30 customers each year.
“People are always trying to train their new employees. Everybody has the same problem today. The baby boomers are retiring and a lot of the knowledge is going out the door,” said Gillig. “With that, I think there is a lot of opportunity because we have these new millennials coming in that are very sharp and are tech savvy. [But] they are very green. They don’t have that experience. So training is a big thing for us.”
Overall, motion control-related business at Livingston & Haven started off strong in 2015, according to Gillig.
“Our business has been pretty good, especially in the first quarter. However, things have slowed down [starting] about the middle of April,” said Gillig. “I think what happened in mid-April is the faucet just turned off a little bit. It is really capital-intensive. The big, big jobs—it seems like the money is on the sidelines. Those guys are holding their money, waiting to see what will happen.”
Various new product lines have been developed, requiring distributors to stay on top of the technologies. It’s a paraphrasing of the old sales axiom: “Always be learning.”
“That is the neat thing about our industry. I’ve been doing this for 31 years and there is never a dull moment,” said Gillig. “There’s always a new customer, always a new challenge. It is that troubleshooting, problem-solving trait that we have. So it is always a learning experience, and you can take that to the next job.”
At Valin, Corey Foster’s experiences mirror those of Gillig.
“It seems like things are a little bit slow this year.  was a hotter year. But our vendors are making a lot of new products, a lot of new technologies,” said Foster. “So that is always exciting.”
At Eastern Industrial Automation, the relatively constant learning is par for the course.
“Well, that is certainly the challenge,” said Tucci. “And that’s why our specialists are becoming more of an integral part of our business survival and success.”