The advantages that industrial drive technology brings to machine motor control are felt throughout the organisational structures and supply chains of a number of major industries, and the Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) sector is no exception.
It may be worth taking a moment at the outset, however, to clarify exactly what is meant by the words Original Equipment Manufacturing. It is a term that can mean different things to different people – especially when those people come from different industries.
In the computing world, for example, an Original Equipment Manufacturer is sometimes understood to be a company that assembles products (or systems) out of component parts (or subsystems) manufactured by others. Where this practice consists mainly of bundling and branding, it is in other contexts more helpfully known as Value-Added Reselling; and the OEM more normally identified as the manufacturer of the component parts.
Where, though, one company is supplied with component parts by another but still manufactures its own generic, unbranded product – typically to be sold on down the supply chain to a further company more associated with end products – then it more closely approximates to an OEM as most understand it.
An Original Equipment Manufacturer is, in short, most commonly defined as any company that manufactures machinery to sell to other companies – either as component parts or for them actually to use within their own manufacturing processes.
Drives and drive systems are of fundamental importance to OEMs in a number of fields – in all fields, in fact, where machine operation demands safe and close controllability, dynamic responsiveness and smart energy consumption.
Any OEM that specialises in supplying heat transfer equipment, for example, relies on drive technology in an array of products – whether it be the fan and pump motors of an HVAC system or the compressors and other mechanisms used to regulate the temperature in commercial refrigeration solutions.
Elevators, cranes, indeed all types of conveyor machinery, are another class of industrial equipment that makes significant use of drive control. And an OEM’s clients in this field – construction sites, mining operations, ports and factories, as well as end product retailers – these days typically appreciate smooth and precise motion control as an industry norm.
Original Equipment Manufacture is, in fact, a thoroughly diverse sector – and the range of relevant drive applications therefore hardly less so. The technology may be found in anything from the slicing apparatus used to deliver identically-sized portions of beet in sugar factories; to the kind of welder that needs to vary speed according to the section of machine it is putting together; to the lapping and polishing machine accurate enough to work with parts of a timepiece almost too small to see with the human eye.
And, of course, if intelligent drives have revolutionised performance standards in traditional industries such as these, they are equally crucial players in more experimental territory – and for a new generation of OEMs. The world of commercial robotics, for example, uses electric drives and motors as staple components of its computer-controlled machines. And the growth rate of few industries is expected to match that of electric cars.
Successful Original Equipment Manufacturers typically have strong collaborative relationships with other manufacturers and suppliers. Motion control technology companies value OEMs as a significant client base of their own and typically work side by side with them on bespoke design projects, as well as providing them with long-term technical support. Where the associations are particularly close or committed they can graduate into full-blown business partnerships.
The closeness of these relationships exists despite the fact that in a number of ways the drives supplied to OEMs have – in line with other aspects of automation – become increasingly easy to install and operate without in-depth specialist training. Uncomplicated motor pairing and intuitive interfaces with simple menu layouts are signs of how accessible drive solutions have become.
The ease with which much industrial equipment can now be sourced, particularly thanks to the development of online supply channels, has to some extent destabilised conventional supply-and-demand structures; it has certainly made those structures less hierarchical. And it is possible that in the long run this loosening may significantly alter the ways in which OEMs operate; already, for example, some are beginning to compete with aftermarket specialists for direct supply relationships with end-users.
Other factors, however, are seeing Original Equipment Manufacturers redouble their commitments to established alliances. Market currents have sped up considerably under pressure of consumer demand. And the accelerating pace of technological change means that purely in-house expertise will increasingly feel its limitations. For these reasons alone it is currently in the interest of all players in the supply chain to coordinate their operations as closely as possible.
The ongoing role industrial drives have to play in the making of OEM products is therefore likely to bring with it a good deal of forward-thinking conversation: whereby drive engineers can learn about the kind of equipment requirements that originate within the consumer end of the market, and manufacturers gain insight into opportunities presented by the latest technology.
Original Equipment Manufacturers are in this scenario well-placed to capture and disseminate technological advancements to areas of industry – such as agriculture or construction – where modernisation may be much desired but is, for various reasons, slow in coming. This is particularly true when it comes to issues of electrification and making systems autonomous.
And given that electrification and automation are trending across the industry more strongly than ever before, it seems inevitable that the importance of drive systems to Original Equipment Manufacturers will continue to grow.