Custom Automation Design vs. Off-the-shelf Products — Which is Right for Your Facility?

PB 27 JAE logo 400

July 20, 2020

Eric Martin C.E.T., JAE Automation

The debate over whether to design a custom solution or purchase a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) product stretches back decades. And it’s not limited to the manufacturing sector. Across industries, the pendulum constantly swings from one side to another as companies seek out advantages and evaluate which approach is best suited for their business.

However, when it comes to automation technology, the answer, like many things in life, depends on the situation.

Each approach offers its own advantages and disadvantages, and the one that is best will depend on your unique requirements, specifications, and business strategy.

Understanding three approaches to automation technology

There are three distinct approaches that manufacturers can follow when implementing automation technology. The first is to purchase a COTS solution and install it as is, or with some light configuration and setup.

This approach works well if there is an existing solution in the market that meets your requirements. It’s often faster and more cost-effective to use an existing product, and it’s less risky as it’s already been proven in other manufacturing environments.

A stretch wrapper is a good example of a COTS solution. Stretch wrapping is fairly standardized and there are many vendors available, so choosing an off-the-shelf machine is likely appropriate in most cases.

That said, COTS solutions lack the flexibility, adaptability, and customization required for many of the more complex, unique, and emerging manufacturing processes. In these cases, a custom solution may be the best approach.

When designing and building a custom automation solution, manufacturers must factor in the additional time, budget, and uncertainty that comes with creating something from the ground up. Cost and schedule are less predictable, and there is a risk that the solution doesn’t work the first time.

But by going through the design process, manufacturers get a solution that meets their exact needs, specifications, and functionality. It’s possible to design entirely new ways of doing things and ensure that the new system fully integrates with both existing and future equipment.

And because the design company is less interested in commercializing the solution, in many cases manufacturers own the intellectual property. This is a significant advantage over a COTS solution if your process is proprietary and provides a competitive advantage.

Finally, it does not have to be an either/or decision. A hybrid approach that leverages off-the-shelf components or machines in a custom design may make the most sense. This allows companies to benefit from existing, proven, technology in a way that best aligns with their facility, process, and flow.

For example, an off-the-shelf box taper could be placed at the end of a custom conveyor system before the cases are put onto a pallet, stretch wrapped, and brought to the warehouse. From there, a fully integrated warehouse management software can track the location, batch number, and other relevant product information and send it to the company’s ERP system. This demonstrates how off-the-shelf components can be used in a custom system.

Asking the right questions when evaluating the right approach

There are a few basic questions you need to ask before diving in and making a decision.

What is our strategy and how will our facility look in the future?

Your strategy determines everything. From the requirements and specifications of your current project to the long-term direction of your manufacturing process and technology, a clear understanding of your strategy is critical before making any investment in automation. Together with your team identify why you’re investing in a new solution, what outcomes you expect to achieve, and how the change to your process will impact the rest of your facility.

Does a suitable COTS solution exist?

Once you’ve laid out your requirements and know how the new solution fits into your factory, you can determine if a suitable solution exists in the market. Knowing your requirements also allows you to accurately evaluate trade offs by making it clear what is a necessity and what could be left off if required.

Do we have budget and schedule flexibility?

As mentioned, a COTS approach offers more cost and schedule certainty, at least at the time of purchase. A custom solution, on the other hand, requires time and budget for design, building, testing, and implementation.

However, it’s also important to think about the total cost of ownership over the life of the equipment. Do you have the knowledge and expertise to configure an off-the-shelf solution, and what are the maintenance and repair requirements? What are the opportunity costs of implementing a solution that doesn’t quite meet your specifications, and would a custom solution generate a better return overall? These types of questions require a strong understanding of the true costs of your facility and of the competencies and skills of your team.

How does this integrate with existing and future systems?

Regardless of which approach you choose, the ability to integrate and communicate with existing and future systems should be a critical requirement of any solution. Some vendors have closed, proprietary systems that lock you in to their products, while others use open standards but require intensive integration effort on the part of the manufacturer. By considering not just what you have today, but also what you expect to implement going forward, you’ll be able to future-proof your new solution.

Choose the best approach for your unique situation

Some small and medium manufacturers are hesitant when it comes to custom automation design because they feel as though it’s only available to larger companies. However, a custom approach is well-suited to small and medium companies if it’s in line with the overall strategy and it addresses a specific business challenge.

With small changes, manufacturers can generate big returns and position themselves for future investments. By working with a trusted automation design partner, you’ll be able to identify which approach will generate the best return while helping you make things better.


Related Articles

Changing Scene

  • Eaton Canada Welcomes Dino Alimonti as New Vice President of Sales

    Eaton Canada Welcomes Dino Alimonti as New Vice President of Sales

    Dino Alimonti has been selected as Vice President, Sales, Eaton Canada, effective July 1, 2023. In his new role, Dino will be responsible for leading, developing and executing sales strategies across key targeted industry segments. He will manage and direct the growth activities of the Sales and Channel teams as well as provide business and operational leadership to the sales teams and associated support functions. Read More…

  • Roberta Nelson Shea from Universal Robots Receives Prestigious Robotics Award for Contribution to Robot Safety

    Roberta Nelson Shea from Universal Robots Receives Prestigious Robotics Award for Contribution to Robot Safety

    For the second time within five years, a key figure at Universal Robots (UR), the Danish manufacturer of collaborative robots (cobots), has been awarded the world’s most prestigious robotics prize, the Joseph F. Engelberger Robotics Award, often described as the Nobel Prize of robotics. Following in the footsteps of UR’s co-founder Esben Østergaard, who was given the Engelberger Award in 2018 in the Technology category, Roberta Nelson Shea, UR’s Global Technical Compliance Officer received the award for Applications at a ceremony last night at the Automate Show in Detroit. Read More…

Sponsored Content
The Easy Way to the Industrial IoT

The way to the Industrial IoT does not have to be complicated. Whether access to valuable data is required or new, data-driven services are to be generated, Weidmuller enables its customers to go from data to value the easy way. Weidmuller’s comprehensive and cutting-edge IIoT portfolio applies to greenfield and brownfield applications. Weidmuller offers components and solutions from data acquisition, data pre-processing, data communication and data analysis.

Visit Weidmuller’s Industrial IoT Portfolio.

For a Multiplied Value Unified


During the last few years, the Excelpro Group has welcomed AIA Automation, Envitech Automation and Conrad Lavoie Electrical, all of which have become ‘Member of the Excelpro Group’.

It was with great excitement that in November of 2022, Excelpro announced that these three companies officially became Excelpro. This decision is part of a strategy to enhance the Excelpro Group’s brand in its market.

These companies already collaborate on various client projects. This merger brings together the complementary strengths of the employees and ensures a global synergy of the activities throughout the Group.

Read More

Service Wire Co. Announces New Titles for Key Executives

Bruce Kesler and Mark Gatewood have been given new titles and responsibilities for Service Wire Co.

Bruce Kesler has assumed the role of Senior Director – Business Development. Bruce will be responsible for Service Wire’s largest strategic accounts and our growing Strategic Accounts Team.

Mark Gatewood has been promoted to the role of Vice President – Sales & Marketing. In this role, Gatewood will lead the efforts of Service Wire Company’s entire sales and marketing organization in all market verticals.

Read More

Tri-Mach Announces the Purchase of an Additional 45,000 sq ft. Facility

Tri-Mach Elmira Facility

Recently, Tri-Mach Inc. was thrilled to announce the addition of a new 45,000 sq ft. facility. Located at 285 Union St., Elmira, ON, this facility expands Tri-Mach’s capabilities, allowing them to better serve the growing needs of their customers.

Positioning for growth, this additional facility will allow Tri-Mach to continue taking on large-scale projects, enhance product performance testing, and provide equipment storage for their customers. The building will also be the new home to their Skilled Trades Centre of Excellence.

Read More

JMP Parent Company, CONVERGIX Acquires AGR Automation, Expanding Global Reach

Convergix Automation Solutions has completed the acquisition of AGR Automation (“AGR”), a UK-based provider of custom, high-performance automation design and systems integration primarily to the life sciences industry.

Following Convergix’s acquisitions of JMP Solutions in August 2021 and Classic Design in February 2022, AGR marks the third investment in Crestview’s strategy to build Convergix into a diversified automation solutions provider targeting the global $500+ billion market, with a particular focus on the $70 billion global systems integration and connectivity segments. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Read More

Latest Articles

  • Rockwell Automation Study Reports 85% of Automotive Manufacturers Plan to Maintain or Increase Workforce

    Rockwell Automation Study Reports 85% of Automotive Manufacturers Plan to Maintain or Increase Workforce

    Rockwell Automation, Inc. has recently announced the results of the 8th annual “State of Smart Manufacturing Report: Automotive Edition”. The global study encompasses the responses of 197 companies from automotive manufacturers, automotive suppliers, and electric vehicle manufacturers across 13 manufacturing countries. This year’s report emphasizes the evolution of the automotive industry with a focus on the pursuit of quality, the impact of process automation, the adoption of smart manufacturing, and the essential role of technology when mitigating risks, navigating workforce challenges, minimizing costs, and boosting production. Read More…

  • Emerson Helps Optimize Innovative Recycling Process That Increases Sustainability of Waste-to-Energy Industry

    Emerson Helps Optimize Innovative Recycling Process That Increases Sustainability of Waste-to-Energy Industry

    Emerson is helping the Swedish cleantech company HaloSep to optimize their unique process that turns hazardous incinerator flue gas residue from waste-to-energy plants into usable materials. Emerson’s control technology and software is being deployed at HaloSep’s plant for optimization, research and technology (PORT) in Gothenburg, Sweden, to manage an innovative chemical separation process that recovers valuable salt, metals and minerals from fly ash. Read More…