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Feature Articles

Introducing Small Companies to Big-time Automation

by Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor - AIA

Small companies don’t always get the respect they deserve. They don’t have hundreds of employees, or make billions of dollars. They range in employees from less than 10 to upwards of 100. They are often run by the same person that built the company from a garage operation; monies paid from the same accounts that buy children’s shoes.

They’re small fries, small time and small potatoes, but they’re also the heart of the U.S. economy. Small businesses provide 75 percent of the new jobs added to the U.S. economy, represent 99.7 percent of all employers, employ 50.1 percent of the U.S. workforce, and account for 40.9 percent of U.S. sales and 97 percent of U.S. exporters.

Clearly, small business does not mean small potatoes. Similarly, representations of small businesses owners as conventional when it comes to operations and stingy when it comes to expenditures also are less likely to be grounded in fact. ‘‘Small businesses can be as astute about technology as larger companies,’‘ said David Dechow, president of systems integrator Aptura Machine Vision Solutions (Wixom, MI). ‘‘Small business owners are risk takers. They’re typically much better at keeping the costs down and knowing what their bottom line is and knowing where the savings are. And while there is a learning curve for machine vision, small companies are just as if not more astute about technology than larger companies with a junior engineer exploring new automation solutions. With a small company, you’re usually dealing with decision makers…with people that are directly vested in optimizing the performance of their companies and processes.’‘

Start small, but dependable
David Wyatt, president of systems integrator Midwest Integration (Mishawaka, IN), has worked with dozens of companies that with fewer than 50 employees, and agrees that small businesses may be small in terms of revenue, but not in terms of savvy. ‘‘Many times, the small business is still run by the founder. This man has made the money himself and will spend it shrewdly. He won’t invest further in the future than he can reap,’‘ Wyatt explained.

Midwet IntergrationSimplicity is the key to successfully introducing machine vision automation into small manufacturing operations, Wyatt said. Smart cameras and dedicated systems are the most common solutions he sells into small companies. ‘‘Smart camera solutions from Cognex, Omron and others; self-contained drives for simple step-and-repeat tasks. Avoid anything that requires the use of a [programming] language or compiler. We program every day, but small business owners don’t have time to hear why one drive is not compatible with another company’s software.’‘

Defining a development and deployment schedule and sticking to it are also critical to winning small business clients. ‘‘You can’t let a big client come along and woo away your engineers for a week. If you tell a small business it will be done on a specific date, it better be,’‘ Wyatt added. Midwest also offers 100 percent money back guarantees for successful systems and full line demonstrations at the customer’s location when feasible. ‘‘Providing services like this are what system integrators do best. Distributors that have to sell 100 systems a year to keep their contracts don’t have the time, and that’s why system integrators are good niche,’‘ Wyatt said.

Leveraging supplier strengths
Unlike hardware vendors, integrators have to go on living with the customer after the system is up and running. Small businesses represent about half of Radix Controls Inc.’s (Oldcastle, ON, Canada) client list, according to CEO and present, Ross Rawlings. ‘‘The most important thing is to get the customer the best solution independent of who I have distribution contracts with,’‘ Rawlings said. ‘‘Sometimes that gets me in trouble, but you have to do that. I have to put it on the [manufacturing] line with inexperienced operators while the vendor is out playing golf. PLC and robot manufacturers tend to encapsulate their equipment and encrypt the way you talk to their devices. We strive for communication interfaces that are open and let you get data out and into another device without great effort.’‘

Vendors are changing, Rawlings said, becoming more responsive to end users’ needs. ‘‘Almost every system we do is unique, so training is important. Vendors are offering primers and tech notes and web seminars over the Internet that give the customer a good foundation to understand the machine vision system. Then we have people to create a technical training document. Manuals that do not say how to use the device, but how it is deployed in this instance,’‘ Rawlings said.

The engineering and customization of a system installed at a small business does not end with the initial deployment, added Aptura’s Dechow. ‘‘Small businesses need a partner. They’re not the typical OEM customer that will buy 740 systems a year. A 40-man company doesn’t have the overhead to assign an engineer to go learn machine vision, experiment with hardware and come up with a design and spend weeks installing and configuring it. The small business needs to know they have a partner that is available and accessible and able to supply the after sales service and support. It’s not always just about cost. You don’t have to be shy about costs [when selling to small businesses], but you have to show them payback – some value.’‘

Despite the differences between small and large companies, commonalities do exist. ‘‘Education and cost considerations are not exclusive to [selling to] small businesses,’‘ Dechow said.

‘‘Big companies can be so heterogeneous internally – with small microcosms of influence and power – that it can look like a small business,’‘ observed Radix’s Rawlings. ‘‘One ‘line guy’ may not collaborate with the worker on the afternoon shift, for instance. Sometimes we see a differences between a 20-man shop and a 2000-man shop, but sometimes its still a small subset of people that I have to interact with so there’s not as much a difference as you think.’‘





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