The Hydraulics Industry grew up with a strange business model.
We, the distributors of hydraulic equipment, possessed and most often gave away our valuable technical advice, and even sophisticated engineering designs, in order to capture an order for hardware or a system. This model worked OK for a long time, as we were “seeding” a growing market and, due to our mostly exclusive supplier relationships, we usually got the initial orders plus spare parts orders in the future. It also worked because the cost of the hydraulics hardware was fairly significant and the cost of it never went down – unlike the cost of electronic devices.
In the past, many customers had in-house engineering resources that were capable of either designing or “figuring out” how to apply most of the technology that was needed to run their machines. Today, that technology has evolved into CAN Bus based control systems, Tier 4 Diesel Emissions Engine Control Modules (ECM’s), J1939, Programmable HMI displays, joysticks, sensors of all kinds, proportional hydraulic controls, etc. On top of that, software development for these CAN Bus systems requires specific expertise in the various programming languages that are available.
Developing a CAN Bus Control system
In short, developing a complete system is very complicated and takes specially trained people who understand not only the CAN Bus controllers and all of the aforementioned components, but also understands how your machine operates and how it should operate. Hiring and training people like this is expensive, which is why few small to medium sized OEM’s keep someone like this on their payroll on a full time basis.
Today, our company is evolving into more of a systems integrator/system design house. We have hired programmers and application engineers who have been thoroughly trained to design and implement quality CAN Bus systems. They understand how to interface with the Tier IV ECM’s. Our customers have access to these talented resources on an “as need” basis and they usually become an extension of the customer’s engineering department. Obviously, it is expensive to train and keep these resources on our staff, so we must charge for their services because hardware sales alone will not pay for them.
The Cost of a Custom CAN Bus Control System
Often, the first time we deliver an estimate to a customer for a prototype machine, the customer is shocked at the cost. “Why is it so expensive?” they ask. “Why is going to take so long?” is another often asked question. Many of these customers have never really had an engineered or documented control system on a machine and the only way we can do a thorough, professional job is to make sure that we have covered all the bases. This includes but is not limited to the following:
- Enclosure Panel Design – Many of these are custom enclosures designed to fit a certain space on a machine and a standard enclosure won’t work. We develop CAD drawings for customer approval and for vendor quotation purpose.
- I/O and Component Layout – In many cases, we can reduce the labor required to wire up a machine by optimizing the location of the I/O blocks and other components and designing an efficient wiring scheme for the machine….but it takes time to do that.
- Wiring Diagrams – A wiring diagram is the roadmap that you use to build, service and troubleshoot a machine. When you are trying to help a customer figure out a problem, the wiring diagram can help you save time and locate the problem more quickly. Standardized wiring helps to eliminate start up problems when the production machines finish final assembly, also saving time…..but it takes time to develop one.
- Control System Software – This is the logic that you program into the CAN Bus controller that tells it which outputs to turn on when certain inputs are received. This is where the safety logic is built in and it is where the logic to start and command the engine ECM exists. Many inputs like speed sensors, temperature sensors, pressure sensors, joysticks and more are received and processed. Outputs for lights, solenoids, proportional coils, motors, etc. are turned on at the correct time. If this is not done correctly, the machine doesn’t perform its job correctly. It takes a good deal of time to develop this program if it includes a lot of I/O.
- HMI Display Programming – HMI is an acronym for Human Machine Interface. This is where you have a chance to set your machine apart. We develop custom screens that show the operator exactly what you want to show them. It is very rare that we use “canned” screens on any of our systems. You define what you want the screens to look like and we develop the graphics and program the display to be unique to your machine. Touch screen technology is now available for mobile machines. We can pretty much do whatever your budget can afford, but this development is also time intensive.
- Testing – The most frustrating thing in the world for both parties is when the system is delivered and it doesn’t work because there are faulty components, wiring errors, etc. We make sure we test every system thoroughly before it leaves our building. For production systems, we often develop custom test setups to speed up testing, but testing the prototype has to be done manually to make sure that it is going to perform once it gets installed into the machine.
- Startup – We try to be very thorough on the front end to make sure we understand everything that we need to know in order to deliver a control system that controls your machine exactly like you want it to. Unfortunately, that involves a lot of human communication and often there are little things that get left out or there is a misunderstanding. Also, there can be wiring or power issues that have to be sorted out on the first machine. There is also the issue of “tuning” the machine to make sure everything works smoothly. Therefore, we include startup time as part of the cost of a prototype machine. The designer/programmer that developed the system is on site and works with your people to make changes until we have a final prototype system that works like you want it to.
Prototype Quality Control
At this point, I’d like to say we are finished, but that is rarely the case. After the prototype goes out into the field and the customer gets to operate it, they often have suggestions for changes and revisions that make the machine more to their liking. Perhaps they want the graphics rearranged on the HMI, for example. After we receive this feedback and make these revisions, we are generally close to a final design.
As you can see, there is a lot that goes into developing that first prototype CAN Bus control system. Once the final design is nailed down, we can then develop accurate pricing on production systems because we can get the custom enclosures punched and drilled to fit your system’s requirements and we have a finalized hardware BOM. At this point, things get fairly routine and simple – but the process leading up to this stage is anything but that.
The bottom line is, it takes a good bit of time, by a qualified team, to develop a quality control system.
Having worked closely with small and medium sized OEM’s for the past 10 years on mobile controls systems, we really do understand how it feels to be under both pricing and scheduling pressure. We want all of our customers to understand exactly what they are getting from a custom designed mobile controls system order so that they are fully satisfied with all of the work put into making their system the best it can be. Hopefully, this will help those of you in a research phase to understand why it takes so much time and why it might cost more than you might have first thought.
If you have any questions, or want to see how Cross can benefit your operation, contact us to discuss your project!