Can and should vendors fill the engineering gap?

Suffering a technical brain drain? Here are five specific ways customers can get effective help from vendors and distributors.


Beckhoff Automation has numerous product specialists to assist with the selection and use of their products from motor sizing to proper controller selection. Seal Tech, one such customer, offers an integrated scale that helps the machine operator ensure tThere are many reasons why end users and equipment builders require the help of outside engineering services. One is a long-term engineering shortage. I know this firsthand when filling open technical positions in my own engineering group. Of course, finding well-qualified candidates for any field of work can be a challenge, but engineering job vacancies require particularly intense recruitment efforts.

Another reason why outside engineering services are needed is often due to inconsistent work flow.

Staffing decisions are often made to cover an “average” level of work, and contracting when needed helps maintain a core group of talent and reduces the need to let people go when workflow levels dip. The rise of contracting firms has also made this process easier.

Finally, because technology continues to change rapidly, it can be difficult to stay up to date and knowledgeable on technology changes and trends. By using the expertise of outside resources that specialize in particular technologies, a firm can feel reassured it’s staying well-informed of technological advances.

Specialists, programming

Beckhoff’s North American System Engineering Group offers engineering and programming services, including customer assistance with system design, programming for PLC, motion control and HMI, electrical installation, and troubleshooting. Beckhoff customersHere are five ways vendors can provide to customers.

1. Vendors have always offered engineering services to support their product lines and can serve an important role in providing relief in this area. Vendors often have numerous product specialists to assist with the selection and use of products, such as motor sizing and proper controller selection.

2. Many automation vendors also offer engineering and programming services beyond sales support.

3. Customer assistance with system design, programming for PLC, motion control and HMI, electrical installation, troubleshooting, and other services may be offered.

4. Customers can use vendors for assistance during periods of peak workloads as well as for expertise in certain industries or vertical markets.

Planning documents

5. Seek help by making a plan: Users of outside engineering services must know when to ask for help and work closely with the vendor to identify all relevant needs so a plan can be drawn up to solve them.

A. To start, select a vendor based on technical expertise and experience in the field. A good relationship with a vendor is essential, but don’t let the convenience of a long-term relationship automatically make your decision.

B. Next, check to make sure the service provider is capable of providing the specific services you are seeking. 

C. Also, when the customer fully defines the scope of work, the vendor understands a clear set of deliverables for which it is responsible. Sometimes it isn’t even clear to the user what the engineering work will actually involve, so take time to think it through and write it down in a planning document.

D. Last, manage the service provider by tracking its progress to ensure accountability. 

Vendors can and do play an important role in helping users of industrial equipment solve tough engineering challenges. Especially when the end user or machine builder has a specific, fixed timetable project that goes above and beyond “business as usual,” this can be a cost-effective alternative to hiring extra staff.

- Gary Kirckof is system engineering group manager, Beckhoff Automation. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Automation and control vendors also may have relationships with system integrators and can facilitate hand-off of a project that requires extra help or expertise.

Key concepts

  • Long-term shortages of engineering skills have customers looking to automation vendors for help.
  • Engineering services, programming, and system design are ways vendors can help.
  • Make a plan when seeking services from controls vendors. 

Consider this

Should you be getting more than just products from your automation and controls suppliers?

The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2015 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
Each year, a panel of Control Engineering and Plant Engineering editors and industry expert judges select the System Integrator of the Year Award winners in three categories.
Pipe fabrication and IIoT; 2017 Product of the Year finalists
The future of electrical safety; Four keys to RPM success; Picking the right weld fume option
A new approach to the Skills Gap; Community colleges may hold the key for manufacturing; 2017 Engineering Leaders Under 40
Control room technology innovation; Practical approaches to corrosion protection; Pipeline regulator revises quality programs
The cloud, mobility, and remote operations; SCADA and contextual mobility; Custom UPS empowering a secure pipeline
Infrastructure for natural gas expansion; Artificial lift methods; Disruptive technology and fugitive gas emissions
Power system design for high-performance buildings; mitigating arc flash hazards
VFDs improving motion control applications; Powering automation and IIoT wirelessly; Connecting the dots
Natural gas engines; New applications for fuel cells; Large engines become more efficient; Extending boiler life

Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
The maintenance journey has been a long, slow trek for most manufacturers and has gone from preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance.
This digital report explains how plant engineers and subject matter experts (SME) need support for time series data and its many challenges.
This digital report will explore several aspects of how IIoT will transform manufacturing in the coming years.
Maintenance Manager; California Oils Corp.
Associate, Electrical Engineering; Wood Harbinger
Control Systems Engineer; Robert Bosch Corp.
This course focuses on climate analysis, appropriateness of cooling system selection, and combining cooling systems.
This course will help identify and reveal electrical hazards and identify the solutions to implementing and maintaining a safe work environment.
This course explains how maintaining power and communication systems through emergency power-generation systems is critical.
click me