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Systems integrators have a somewhat different point of view. "As far as deciding [on a system], we usually rely on the customer's preference. When it's not available, we try to be good stewards of their money and find the most cost-effective solution," says Cliff Speedy, controls engineer at C&I Engineering, Louisville, Ky. If an end user wants to save money, a second tier supplier is an excellent choice, because their systems sell for half to a third the cost of a big DCS. However, cost is not the only issue.
"There is also the consideration of maintaining support for a system. Our company is not into service contracts or continuous on-site work. We want to put in a large system and turn it over to the client. So I think the biggest thing going for the larger suppliers is a network of capable, independent support."
The problem is that large, complex systems need much more support than simple systems. And many of the big control systems out there are very complex.
"The Big Boys like to take an all-encompassing, top-to-bottom approach when developing their process automation systems," says Benson Hougland, director of technical marketing at Opto 22, a second-tier supplier. "They construct elaborate architectures that, while very effective, are costly and require a major, enterprise-wide commitment by the customer to the vendor. This is how they like to play ball, entrenching themselves and reaching their tentacles into as many areas of the enterprise as possible."
This approach certainly seems to work, because the Big Boys are selling huge numbers of systems.
The Big Boys may have all the weapons, but chinks are starting to show in their armor. In this month's Control Report (p25), we show that some end users are starting to question the technical leadership, commitment to R&D and outsourcing of support. It's not an overwhelming mass revolt by any means, but where there's smoke, there's fire. We've heard that customer support, now being farmed out to developing countries, annoys some users. We also heard that some DCS suppliers are acting arrogant and are hard to deal with.
We heard no such complaints about second-tier suppliers. In fact, nobody had anything bad to say about them at all. Maybe it's because they take a different approach.
We Try Harder
"The bottom line is that many companies don't need a top-to-bottom full system-wide approach. In fact, many companies today simply don't have that kind of funding. We take a different approach," says Hougland. "The hardware and software tools we provide allow the customer to scale their solution much more easily. We provide a tool set for customers to incrementally improve or upgrade their process control applications. As a result, we approach the customer as a provider of these tools, and we have a portfolio of systems integrators who can help implement the solution."
Many of the second-tier suppliers offer "tools" that are based on ordinary, plain-Jane technology, such as Ethernet, Windows, PCs and open architecture. Each supplier, of course, adds its own expertise to the products, and what emerges are the most advanced, high technology process control systems, devices and software available on the market.
In some cases, even the Big Boys use tools from second-tier suppliers. National Instruments says it provides a wide range of products that are used for many different types of measurement and control applications in process, discrete and batch industries.
"The Big Boys that you refer to don't have all the pieces necessary to address every requirement of all process automation systems," says Don Holley, Industrial Automation Product Manager, National Instruments. "Many times, National Instruments products are used in conjunction with one of the Big Boys' systems to solve high-speed measurement and control problems, integration with analytical instrumentation, and advanced analysis and control."
It works the other way, too. Some second-tier suppliers use tools from the Big Boys. Cindy Hollenbeck, marketing manager at SoftPLC, says one of their customers is installing Model P266 software-based PLCs with Intellution-based HMIs. SoftPLC was in competition with major DCS vendors for the job, and Hollenbeck says they won because they were one-third the cost with better performance, the same reliability and less ongoing maintenance, even when using an established HMI/SCADA software package from a DCS vendor.
"Neither SoftPLC nor Intellution has the complete solution for all the tasks done by a DCS," says Hollenbeck, "but together we do."
Although the Big Boys pioneered distributed control in the 1970s and 1980s, they seem to have lost some of their technological edge to second-tier companies, who are much more willing to go out on a limb and stake their company's future on new technology. Today, the Big Boys are sometimes willing to let others break new ground, and then adopt it after it works.
"Wago was the first company to offer a fieldbus-independent solution," says Dean Norton, Wago Marketing Manager. "While the fieldbus wars were going on, it was Wago's position to support all protocols and not try to figure out who was going to win this war. As it turned out, no one really won this war, and our position of offering customers all solutions has proven itself to be the right decision. This is particularly important to our distribution and system integration channel partners. They can provide connectivity to almost any protocol, such as DeviceNet, Profibus, Ethernet, Modbus, Interbus-S, CANopen, etc."
ControlGlobal.com is exclusively dedicated to the global process automation market. We report on developing industry trends, illustrate successful industry applications, and update the basic skills and knowledge base that provide the profession's foundation.