Questions to Ask When Choosing an Integrator for Automating Your Manufacturing

Questions to Ask When Choosing an Integrator


A custom automation integration project can easily hit six figures and take months or years of collaboration. Gauging who can deliver a machine or robot that fits the needs of your business can be the difference between long term success and years of setback. Automation integration companies have different specializations, sizes, experience levels, and strategies. Take the time to contrast and compare, and you will find the company that can target your goals, your management styles, and your manufacturing. Ask your potential automation integration collaborator these questions before you decide on a long-term partnership. 


“How do you structure communication?” 


The biggest contributor to scope bloat, unproductive partnerships, budget inflation, and unsatisfying results comes from communication failure. An integrator that dismisses the risks, deflects to their credentials or acclaim, or oversimplifies your needs might be disguising poor communication skills. Seek an integrator that can set specific consistent representatives from both sides of the partnership with a plan for informed backup representatives. A skilled automation integrator will set meetings, benchmarks, timelines, definitions of success, definitions of failure, and invite communication outside of the structure. A communicator that cannot commit to consistent staff, timelines, details, and responsibilities is not committed to your project and is not prioritizing your business. 


“Do you have any exclusive parts or software commitments?” 


Some automators sign exclusivity contracts with parts or software suppliers. In the short term this saves money for the automator, but in the long term this limits the choices you have for alternative suppliers, cheaper part options, and qualified maintenance technicians. In a technology dependent industry, an exclusive contract that forces an automator to ignore a better solution makes no sense. The average machine life of an industrial robot operating at full capacity is twenty years, the costs associated with replacing parts from a dwindling pool of limited part manufacturers, trained maintenance support, and license restricted software will be passed onto you. The ideal machine integrator uses open-source software, has the agnostic freedom to marry cost and quality from any supplier, and the ability to flexibly update your machine with cutting edge best option advances in technology. 


“Have you worked with a company my size before?” 


A skilled automation integrator knows that there is no one size fits all solution and not everyone is on an equal footing. This works both ways, knowing that a custom software, engineering, or machine solution must be unique to every business means that a no to this question is not a deal breaker. Be extremely wary of an automator that touts a generic process or seems to apply the same industrial automation integration across multiple businesses. Do not bother with integrators that do not offer an Automation Assessment. A custom or semi-custom automated machine or robot needs to fit the specific targets of your production. Gauge their ability to ask follow up questions, provide options, and thoughtfully consider your questions. Turnkey solutions are always at least semi custom, careful selection of parts can drastically impact the correct robot, end effector, and software. This question is a terrific way to prototype what partnership communication looks like between your project lead and your integrator. 


“How do you train for a custom machine?” 


An automation collaboration should not shackle your business to your integrator for everything. The ideal automation partner educates for self-sufficiency. Custom robotics and machines require custom training for operation, repair, programming, and maintenance. Customizing the training involves listening to your workforce, engaging their involvement in the process, and creating effective methods based on their involvement. Not engaging the workforce is a common failure that leads to inefficient machines, worker resistance, and unproductive manufacturing. Do not underestimate the value of communicating the worth of the machine, the new opportunities for workers, and benefits to the worker environment. Make sure when you ask this question your integrator can articulate workforce engagement as a part of the process.  The ideal automator’s dedicated technical writer will be able to easily provide a manual for everyday use and a manual specifically for maintenance. You will safeguard your longevity. 


“What should I expect for scaling the future of my business?” 


Any automation integrator can tell you about the basic return on investment figures. Gains in safety, quality, efficiency, consistency, employee satisfaction, and retention are a basic requirement of making the capital investment. A responsible automation integration should communicate the immediate potential benefits of growth from the moment the new machine enters the floor. Your machine should position its capabilities in anticipation of additional sales, larger customers, and new customers. Plan the machine to work alongside the next machine. Today’s targets are about more than evaluating the impact of human labor. Can your current location support a larger production floor, additional buildings, and support the labor pool you need to hire to support your growth? Your competition leverages their capital expenditure to support future investment, your integrator should anticipate these questions for you. If your automator cannot describe the concept of scaling the business for growth beyond the ROI figures, you risk ending up with a machine that was perfect for your business two years ago. 


“What happens if I need a change to the machine?” 


If a change request happens in the early assessment and design phases, your automation collaborator should be able to accommodate those changes. A smart integrator bids with a 10-15% budget for minor changes, mistakes, and engineering fixes. This budget cushion allows the integrator flexibility to fix problems without having to bombard the customer with costly requisitions. Flexibility is important to automation integration but be wary of a partner too eager to make changes. An integration partner needs the discipline to resist scope bloat. Changing the machine after prototyping will come with extra costs and changes to the timelines, but a responsible integrator will demonstrate an outline of those costs long before prototyping in the event of necessary changes. 


“How should I communicate what I need from the machine?” 


Ideally your focus should be on the big picture goals while the technical details of the automation integration design are left to the automation partner. A responsible automation integrator knows the questions to ask to translate production processes into specifications and will invite questions and requests of the machine. You should not feel the need to micromanage, if your integrator is forcing you to make technical parts decisions for the machine or making you pick a generic robot, you are not getting value out of the partnership. 


“Can I talk to some of your recent clients?” 


While acclaim, business size, financial power, case studies, testimonials, and number of clients all can be indicators of compatibility, asking to contact a recent client about their experience should be acceptable so long as non-disclosure agreements are respected. Reputation often outstrips competency, you may discover a good reputation no longer applies, or a bad reputation has been corrected. You can corroborate whether their disposition is a good match.  

At the same time, ask for a tour of the integrator’s facility. Whether you intend to or not, you can learn a lot about their compatibility based on the response you get. You should always get an offer for a tour and an introduction to the team. 

At DEVELOP LLC our project managers, engineers, and manufacturing experts dedicate themselves to educating our customers. We pride ourselves on customized industrial automation integrations that justify the return on investment, prepare for growth, and chart a course to financial impregnability. Tell us more about your project, schedule a virtual meeting, or call (262)-622-6104 to learn how you can improve your production outcomes with responsible automated integration. 

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