May/June 2013

the final say | Views from Automation Leaders

Selecting an automation distributor?
It's about finding the right stuff.

By Frank Hurtte
 final 1

Working with automation distributors with the "right stuff" improves your results. A recent survey reported that more than 89 percent of automation professionals use distributors. And five major distributor trade associations claim to be the major provider of North American automation products. There are a lot of folks who think they have the right stuff. Just what is an automation distributor with the right stuff?

At first glance, it might be the right product, appropriate technology, proper inventory, or the most time-critical delivery. A case might be made for each of these attributes, but I believe the right stuff includes people and services, with products playing a supporting role.

Based on more than 30 years' experience, I have developed a perspective on industry trends. Bear with me as I journey back to the days when disco reigned and I sported a leisure suit and John Travolta hair. Distributors provided logistics and local inventory and dropped off an occasional new product brochure. Automation users were different then, with nearly every manufacturing facility or OEM having a much larger engineering team. For example, one of my first major customers had a plant engineering group numbering over 60 people. A couple of years ago, attending the retirement party of a friend at this facility, I asked why the office seemed so empty. He explained there were only five engineers remaining, higher levels of output, more automation, and the same number of issues for staff to handle.

Companies do not keep stables of engineers anymore after the economic downturns of the 1980s, '90s, and beyond drove downsizing, reengineering, and a complete change in how technical resources are viewed by business leaders. Skinny resources push against increasingly complex technology. Those of us in automation know: it takes skilled people to design, develop, and maintain systems. An explosion of technology produced an avalanche of application-specific needs. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) do not program themselves, vision systems do not prove themselves out alone, and networks are not self-designing.

In spite of the Internet and other resources, automation users struggle to keep their left nostril gingerly floating above the flood. Trends in business and the needs of automation users spurred the creation of systems integrators and a new breed of automation solution providers.

What is the right stuff for today's distributors? We believe a distributor should have knowledgeable frontline automation salespeople who understand products and possess a sound working knowledge of typical applications and well-developed interconnectivity and architectural design support. The distributor must be willing to invest time to understand your specific operations, current trouble spots, and the longer-term strategies of your business.

Consider asking these questions to qualify distributors:

  • What can your organization do to improve the uptime of my facility?
  • Do you have a plan to help us drive down our cost of doing business?
  • Do you offer one-on-one training for our engineers, technicians, and electricians?
  • How will my support calls be handled? What are the hours of operation?

The product specialist, like the senior engineer of old, is the backup that should have a deep understanding of the nuances of the products and how to make them work. Ideally, they are available for one-on-one training, discussions of new products, and assisting with troubleshooting the really tough problems, which are often undocumented.

As automation becomes more complicated, testing compatibility and connectivity grow in importance. A top-shelf distributor has a demo room where you can pre-test system characteristics without the pressures experienced on the plant floor.

With new technology flowing like the Buckingham Fountain, humans are the new weak link in automation. It is no longer feasible to travel to some distant city for training. Technicians, electricians, machine operators, and others who benefit from understanding the system require a plan for bringing training to a local facility.

The "distribution" of product has not been prominently mentioned anywhere. In today's world, we have plenty of really good products, quality is a given, and logistics channels move them from one corner of the continent to another in hours. Today, people are the right stuff. If distributors are not actively involved in enabling your people, they are not doing their job.


Frank Hurtte ( is the founding partner of River Heights Consulting. Hurtte speaks, writes, and consults on the customer-facing side of the automation industry.