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Robot/Vision Companies Poised on Brink of e-Business Golden Era

POSTED 12/18/2000  | By: James F. Manji, Contributing Editor

E-Business and e-Commerce, although still in their infancy, are proving to yield multiple, significant benefits both for robot and vision companies and their customers. Principal among these benefits are a volume increase in sales, cost savings, reduction in time-to-market, slashing automation lead times 30%, and a vaulting increase in efficiency, quality, and automation implementation.

One company that is in the vanguard of e-Commerce is National Instruments Corp., Austin, TX. 'We adopted the web early in our processes because our business model fits in nicely with the Internet,' explains John Hanks, director of segment marketing. 'We are a direct sales company active throughout the world with over 900 automation products that we sell directly on the web. Last year, our sales were around $340 million and we've been growing at double digits for 25 years in a row. Our business model is to send out a lot of catalogs and we've used the web for our catalog model over the last six years. Our customers buy directly over the web, with more than 1 million customers every quarter visiting our web site.'

NI's 900 automation products run the gamut from data acquisition boards for dynamic signal measurement and sound vibration to machine vision components for measurement to motion control. Hanks is justifiably proud of the company's web site, which has earned many national awards for most comprehensive web sites. 'Design News ranked us in the top 15 web sites visited, while the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) selected NI's web site as the winner in the manufacturing segment out of 970 web sites.'

NI includes numerous customer solutions and applications on its web site on how to make measurements and use machine vision. Sites like 'Developers' Own' provide detailed technical information about measurement, while certain selected 'Premier Sites' simplify order placement and order tracking.

'There is also the potential to help our customers better specify their automation systems,' says Hanks. 'Instead of going through a catalog and specifying your system, this could all be done on the web, so that the customer would have the opportunity to configure their system on the web and the process of configuring would actually help you in your development process.'

Concepts like these are envisioned by Charlie Duncheon, senior vice president of Adept Technology Inc., San Jose, CA, and CEO of FastFactory, an Adept venture. There are four major areas of e-Business on the Internet that are still in their infancy stage, Duncheon believes. These areas are: e-Marketing, e-Commerce, e-Support, and e-Engineering. 'We're beginning to see a little bit of e-Commerce, but not much,' he maintains. 'Certainly less than 10% of all automation companies are actually doing e-Commerce today, so there's tremendous potential here. A few companies are at the early stages of e-Support and there's almost no e-Engineering.'

Many automation products are now being sold as commodities, with customers buying PLCs, limit switches, sensors, and other components exactly as consumers would buy books from amazon.com or toys at e-toys, he avers. 'We're just now at the beginning stages of configurable products in e-Commerce,' he says. 'That's where it's a little more challenging and I think it's going to happen but it's going to take a while longer.'

In the next stage of Internet evolution, Duncheon sees e-Support, which would enable the automation customer to purchase spares, upgrades, or other enhancements to improve performance of the product. E-Support would allow the customer to diagnose issues online and deal with issues pertaining to online documentation instead of resorting to paper manuals which might become obsolete one month after they have been sitting on the shelf.  E-Support would provide access to online documentation.

'Adept is very active in e-Support for Adept robots,' explains Duncheon, 'but it gets a little complicated when you have a robot system or full vision system that have various components and even pieces of equipment from various suppliers. Is the integrator going to create that whole online diagnostic solution? Not at the current price he's getting for systems. That is an area for a full custom line and that's probably a little further out. However, individual capital equipment suppliers like Adept are making good progress here.'

In the next evolution of web activity, e-Engineering has vast potential areas and benefits where users get online and look at not only robots, but also conveyors and grippers and other automation components and then have the capability to assemble them in a 3-D layout, according to Duncheon. 'I would take that a step further with not only assembling the components but actually doing 3-D simulation layouts online,' says Duncheon. 'The ability to simulate full systems online with accurate cycle times, throughput, and so forth is going to have a huge impact on what Adept calls Rapid Deployment Automation. In this area, we're not even out of the starting block, but there's huge potential here.'

One automation vendor that is pushing the envelope of e-Business is ABB Flexible Automation Inc., Auburn Hills, MI. The company provides its customers with the capability to monitor its machinery and groups of plants, upload all that information on the web, and then actually establish flags and alarms so that they can stop a problem from occurring before it actually happens.

'We're working with a company that ABB just purchased, which has the technology to link processes and back-end procedures through ABB's web site,' explains Robert D. Lee, e-Business program manager. 'We're using that technology to provide not only the back-end integration between our web site and our suppliers but also move down to the equipment level and post that information on our web site. The customer then has the capability of looking at his own equipment and can actually store his data on our web site.

'We also have newer technology that enables us to install monitors and sensors on their equipment and processes,' Lee continues. 'We can then read the data on those sensors to determine when an operation is moving outside your pre-determined limits. We can then make whatever adjustments or changes to bring that process back into tolerance before they produce a bad part.'

One of the major benefits to be derived from this activity is not only the quality aspect of parts made right within tolerance, but also the opportunity to increase business because 'it provides us with visibility to customers that we had no visibility for before.'

'This program has helped us streamline all of our back-end systems and improve our operations,' says Lee. 'Once you provide visibility to your customers and your suppliers to look inside your operation, there's a tendency for things to improve.'

The web has also provided automation vendors with the capability to speed up business, facilitate communication on product ordering and troubleshooting, and shorten implementation time. Scientific Technologies Inc., Fremont, CA, provides not only product manuals, CAD drawings, and technical articles on its web site, but also an online Request for Quote (RFQ), all of which simplify ordering, shorten lead times, and provide high accuracy.

Scientific Technologies Inc. is a manufacturer of safety automation products like safety light curtains, safety mats, interlock switches, and other safety devices used around machine cells and robotic work cells. Accuracy of ordering is ensured because, for example, on ordering a light curtain, the customer specifies the length of the transmitter, receiver, power supply, cable length, and other data on the RFQ. 'This kind of detail allows us to respond quickly and accurately to a customer request,' says Joe Lazzara, president and CEO. 'In one example, a customer wanted to buy 20 interlocks. And, from the time that they sent us the RFQ till the time we received the order was less than two hours.'

Also, STI's web site speeds up implementation time for its customers. The difference in time zones between STI and east coat customers also means that customers can gain ordering information without having to wait the obligatory three hours for the time zones to come into sync. This often means that customers have already placed orders before STI personnel have started their work day.

The Internet is in full blown use by Coreco Imaging, Bedford, MA. The company, formed by the merger of Imaging Technology and Coreco, manufactures frame grabbers and embedded vision processors and machine vision software mainly for the semiconductor and electronics industry. The company's products are purchased by OEMs who build wire bonding equipment, wafer stacking machines, wafer dicing, mark inspection systems, etc.

Coreco Imaging uses the Internet on three levels -- as an Internet, an Extranet, and an Intranet. Distributors can access Coreco's web site's Extranet for information that is specifically targeted for them. Its Intranet holds only that portion of the information that is suitable for its OEM customers; and the Internet makes available all the information on Coreco Imaging that is meant for the public domain.

Distributors are able to access data sheets, press releases, sales leads for individual distributors, and any other information that is deemed valuable for marketing purposes. 'From a sales perspective, we provide our pricing books,' explains Michelle Chaput, corporate marketing manager. 'Customers can also check on their orders and discover where in the process their order is. A Return Material Number (RMA) provides distributors with the capability to post any repair problems online and provides a way for the return of a part for repair.'