If you’re like most small to midsize manufacturers investing in automation, you spent time at the very start of your project carefully choosing an automation integrator. That’s the best time to identify companies that are not a good fit in terms of budget, experience or specialization, even personality clashes or things outside everyone’s control like schedules that just won’t mesh. And as a result, hopefully your final choice will deliver a custom machine for you as planned. But what if things start to change once the project is underway?
Trust is the foundation of vendor/client relationships, so whenever possible give your integrator the benefit of the doubt as the professional experts they are. Especially if this is your first experience with automation, there could be delays or requests for information that seem unusual to you but are actually within normal range for a typical project. Even so, it’s challenging to know just when to worry because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Red Flags: Your Signal to Look Closely
The sinking feeling that creeps up if you sense something is amiss with your integration vendor is hard to ignore. Keep in mind, however, few of these “red flags” individually guarantee your project is headed for disaster. There could be a reasonable explanation or factors outside the vendor’s control for isolated incidents. Posing a respectful inquiry about your concerns tells your vendor you’re paying attention and want to keep things on track.
Here are some behaviors that merit a closer look:
- Changing communication. Watch for shifts in the vendor’s communication patterns. For example, perhaps their staff initially responded quickly to you but become evasive or reluctant to talk. Is their “true” overall communication style emerging or does it signal some kind of change toward your project?
- Inattention to detail. How attentive is the vendor to what is said during meetings or in email? Do they tend to correctly remember what was discussed? Continually being asked to repeat basic information, or having to reexplain processes could indicate a problem.
- Shifting responsibilities. Watch for any sign your vendor is trying to change the project scope to transfer responsibilities to your team. Because you’ve likely outlined responsibilities in earlier phases, this is troubling once work is underway. Be especially concerned if the vendor appears to be avoiding or trying to get out of certain aspects of the job or insists they thought your team was responsible it.
- Missed milestones. Everyone knows that schedules can change, but without a clear or valid reason that they are willing to provide, missing deadlines and milestones repeatedly is a problem. That said, this can be a tricky situation to navigate if you’re not familiar with the automation equipment/component supply chain. For example, lead time issues are a current challenge as explained in a recent Assembly Magazine article: “Lead times for indexers, actuators, robots and other components have increased dramatically. Depending on the size and complexity of the part, delivery times for linear slides can range from 20 to 26 weeks; robots can range from 14 to 20 weeks; and indexers can take eight to 12 weeks.” If your vendor knows about potential delays, he or she will ideally communicate them to you so adjustments can be made.
- Staffing changes. Frequent changes to staff or team members can be signs of problems with individuals or with the company as a whole. In either case, it’s a clear indication the vendor’s staff are not fully available to work on your project efficiently or to support your needs. Ideally, the vendor will notify you of changes before they happen and have a plan to make these new personnel or team members familiar with the project quickly.
- Lack of risk awareness. If your vendor seems unaware or unconcerned about safety or risks to security for smart factories, it could be a sign they don’t fully understand the details of your situation. For example, some manufacturing of raw materials can cause physical harm directly or by exposure, which must be limited and controlled. Cybersecurity is especially a concern if equipment is connected to an insecure network or if remote equipment access for updates and troubleshooting is done carelessly.
- Inflexibility. Take notice if a vendor who seemed open to different ideas or brands becomes unwilling to consider alternatives as the project progresses.
How to Be the Kind of Client Vendors Want to Work With
Most automation projects take several months from initial discussion and design to final installation and run off. In that time, you may notice occasional errors or inconsistencies from a vendor. After all, we tend to keep a close eye on work we’ve contracted when it’s critical to our operations. And it’s usually easier to see when the other party misses the mark instead of when we do.
The reality is, as a partner in your automation project, your internal team can send red flags to the vendor too. Here’s how to uphold your side of the partnership:
- Provide information when it’s requested. If you’re asked for more or different information or if you get repeated requests, be sure you fully understand what is needed. The vendor wouldn’t ask you if there was not a gap in their knowledge – closing the gaps gets you closer to an optimal machine.
- Avoid changes and new requests. Unless they are essential or out of your control, the time for making changes to the design of your product or part is long past. If you supply parts to another company, communicate to the vendor any changes your customer has made in design or production requirements as soon as you are aware of them.
- Balance monitoring with micromanaging. Part of your responsibility is to keep tabs on the vendor’s progress, but stay mindful that being overinvolved can undermine their comfort and trust with the situation. While it can be helpful to have a member of your internal team available to answer questions, they must be careful not to impede progress by requiring excessive check-ins or requesting explanations of every step.
It’s hard to overstate how important it is to carefully vet an automation integrator before signing a contract. As technology and automation capabilities evolve, it’s in your best interest to find a vendor with expertise, current knowledge, and great communication skills. Contact us to see if Force Design is right for you.