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Design Engineers Are at the Center of the Industrial Automation Sourcing Process

Design Engineers Are at the Center of the Industrial Automation Sourcing Process

The promise of advanced machine-to-machine networking, smart factories, and Industry 4.0 has gotten the wide field of manufacturing and industrial automation abuzz with excitement, including working professionals like design, project, and process engineers. However, there appears to be some ways to go before they realize those promised benefits.

Still, a recent Design News-exclusive study proves that engineering professionals are at the very forefront of this push into the future and making direct financial, performance, and value impact on their organizations by being personally involved or final decision-makers on automation solution and component choices.

Among engineering professionals who are directly responsible for specifying or purchasing decisions, more than three-quarters are identifying solution types and making brand and vendor recommendations, while more than half are evaluating products and determining new and emerging solutions to adopt. Just about every six in 10 engineers are directing the final decisions on products and technologies in their automation designs and selecting brands and vendors.

These results came from 530 Design News community members who subscribe to our monthly print magazine or range of e-newsletters and responded to our survey. Exploration and Insights LLC helped execute the survey, and Gazelle Global, an independent research firm, tabulated the survey data.

Among our respondents, 59% said they are responsible for system design engineering as well as engineering and project management. Forty-eight percent said their primary or secondary job function is to design for in-plant use. The respondents are also multidisciplinary, with mechanical engineering, electrical/electronic engineering, manufacturing engineering, controls engineering, and electromechanical engineering among the most ticked boxes in Design News' query on their formal backgrounds.

They also proved to be serving a breadth of end-use markets. Those most identified were packaging; assembly and conveying; automotive/transportation; machine tools; and robotic systems. They were tailed immediately by aerospace/defense; medical/healthcare; and food and beverage processing.

Perhaps not surprising, the majority of them are specifying, approving, and purchasing machine sensors and I/O devices. Plus, there was a fairly even distribution across the sourcing of motors, HMIs, controllers, drives, cylinders, encoders, safety equipment, and vision systems. More than one-third are also involved with industrial automation software and networking technologies in the midst of our factory automation renaissance.

As should be expected, system engineers are predominantly using standard off-shelf solutions when applicable. Nearly half of the Design News respondents, too, are working with automation vendors to design custom solutions when they're needed, followed by more than one-third of engineering professionals who are collaborating with system integrators.

Based on our study, today's system engineers and project managers hold closely to four pillars when sourcing automation components and systems: quality/reliability, ease of use, technical capability, and total installation cost. When it comes to selecting automation suppliers, they similarly subscribe to four predominant factors: on-time delivery, applications and product support, price, and knowledgeable sales staff.

Supplier quality and supply chain robustness is important to these specifiers, as well. The ratio of Design News respondents who use approved vendors to those who don't was practically two to one -- 66% versus 34% -- and 57% of them have a hand in establishing preferred vendor lists. And these lists are looked at and evaluated on a yearly basis by 60% of industry professionals.

Moreover, our engineering respondents have no qualms about making the extra effort to find the best vendors for their project situations and needs, so much so that a single-source solution was their least important sourcing criterion, finishing dead last in the criteria range. Again, there was a two-to-one ratio between engineers and project managers who prefer using a combination of best-of-breed vendors and those who go after one-vendor solutions.

Amid all the discussion and industry coverage about the Industrial Internet of Things, it ranked among system and project engineering professionals' last responses to the question of what they expect will be the most important trends making an impact on their design cycles in the next 12 to 24 months. Continuing development of M2M solutions fared slightly better but still finished in the bottom half of responses, along with factory energy monitoring and control and industrial cyber security.

Encouraging, though, the top five responses by Design News' community members suggest automation users are slowly working their way over to the IIoT, highlighted by the "most impactful trends" of integrated automation, remote connectivity, smart-field devices (actuators and sensors), and wireless factory apps.

Design News has made available the details of this industrial automation user study. Download a free copy and see how you fare against your peer engineers and project managers when it comes to being in command of automation design decisions.

Will Ng is a perfectionist who has been in business journalism for more than 15 years, many of which have been devoted to covering manufacturing, technology, and industry. A writer first, he loves to tell a good story and enjoys reporting on market trends and news.

Atlantic Design & Manufacturing, the largest advanced design and manufacturing trade show serving the Northeastern US, will take place in New York, June 9-11, 2015. It's your chance to meet qualified suppliers, get hands-on with the latest technologies, and expand your network. Learn more here.

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