January/February 2013
Talk to Me

Selling automation

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

Automation engineers regularly discuss the difficulty of convincing management to fund new automation projects. Companies need to adopt new technology to remain competitive, survive, and grow in the world economy. I suggest that automation engineers help management understand that applying new technology enables a company to remain competitive.

Automation technology is being adopted throughout the world in order to be more competitive. The advantage of low-cost labor is rapidly coming to a close. Manufacturers worldwide are using automation to achieve goals of improving accuracy, productivity, reliability, and consistent quality. One example is the growth in the application of robots. The International Federation of Robotics reported that, in 2011, robot sales increased by 38 percent, the highest level ever recorded for one year. The largest growth (39-51 percent) in sales was in China, the U.S., and Germany. The biggest market, with the most robots per capita, remains Japan, followed by the Republic of Korea. A wider range of industries is using robots, and the market is accelerating with the availability of lower-cost, more agile robots. Robots are also being integrated with vision systems, where recognition software is used to create "intelligent" robots. As robots become simpler to program, for example, users can teach them to perform specific tasks. Another example is retrofitting manual three-axis machine tools by adding a controller and motors to replace the hand controls that automate the machine tool. Talking with a supplier of these systems at the IMTS 2012 show, I found that the major sales are to Chinese companies who are retrofitting machines to lower labor costs and improve productivity.

Learning, evaluating, and applying new technology so your company has a competitive advantage is a fundamental task for automation engineers. By definition, all competitive advantage is differential, meaning you are exploiting the advantage of a new technology before your competitors apply it. A classic example of this was Fed-Ex. In 1979, FedEx began using a centralized computer system known as COSMOS to track packages, routes, weather, vehicles, and employees. The company embraced bar codes to track packages whenever it changed hands in order to "know" where every package was and where it was going. FedEx became a major force in the industry and, subsequently, competitors adopted these technologies in order to compete. The lesson: companies who are first applying technology to gain an advantage win in the marketplace; later, you need to adopt these technologies to simply remain competitive.

Ensuring your company remains competitive is important. There are several ways to keep up on new technology, including trade publications, conferences, and tradeshows that should be viewed as necessary investments of company resources. Simply waiting for vendors to bring you their best ideas opens a very narrow window into the automation world of possibilities. A key concept in evaluating new technology is determining if it is stable, since the first implementations are usually prone to problems. When a new technology becomes stable, and it is a fit for applications in your company, then that is the time to apply them. A common management or purchasing objection is that the technology is too expensive, so they wait until the price comes down. That can be a false economy, since using the technology before your competitors adopt it can give your company earlier increased profits, which far outweighs the cost.

Using combined knowledge and creativity to identify and apply new technology contributes to the success of a company. Ensure that your company remains competitive and successful by first getting management to buy into the idea that new technology is an essential business investment. Then learn, evaluate, and apply it.